Sator is either a shared delusion – localised to the members of a family who live isolated in very deep dark woods – or a supernatural entity who commands the loyalty of those under his thrall and intervenes in their lives. Writer-director Jordan Graham’s film is intricate, subtle and rewarding – but not an easy watch. It’s the sort of movie that not only puts darkness and quiet on the screen but needs them in the viewing arena as it takes a while to work out how the people are related to – and relate to – each other. Some stretches are in academy frame home movie black and white, which twenty years on evokes The Blair Witch Project as much as any personal past, while most of the movie is in composed widescreen, with characters lost in ominous natural spaces. Performances – especially from June Peterson as a chatty granny whose folksy charm is wrapped up with bizarre beliefs – have a kind of unforced naturalism that’s easy to take for verite footage.
There is a plot, as doubters or waverers in the family are pulled into belief in Sator, and fall under its influence – but it works more as an elliptical, allusive experience, like trying to find meaning in the reams of automatic writing Nani (Peterson) – and is that a name or a title? – scribbles when Sator takes her over. That its horrors – and Sator – are undefined makes them more terrifying and this is a rare contemporary horror film that delivers a Lovecraftian mix of cosmic awe and fear without resorting to tentacles. It does, however, feature disciples or avatars of Sator dressed in furs and horns with fingers made of jawbones – and, in one quiet, inexplicably frightening shot a series of identical figures in this get-up stalk through the frame like one of the off nightmare replication moments in the cartoons of Tex Avery.
It has something in common with the more abstract episodes of the recent Twin Peaks revival – some images of white figures in darkness or out-of-focus levitations are especially haunting – but also channels its strangeness into a relatable family tragedy. ‘As far as I’m concerned, Sator can go fuck himself,’ declares Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) one of the young men who’s tried to break away from what might be a matrilineal cult but is inevitably drawn back in. Oh, and one of the nastiest moments I’ve seen in the movies in a long time pays off a detail – the enormous beard sported by Adam’s brother Pete (Michael Daniel) – you take for just part of the backwoods milieu.