Sator. 2019. Directed & Written by Jordan Graham.
Starring Michael Daniel, Rachel Johnson, Aurora Lowe, Gabriel Nicholson, & June Peterson.
Mistik Jade Films
Not Rated / 85 minutes
Disclaimer: The following article contains spoilers
I’m a big fan of Ari Aster’s Hereditary, yet still would’ve preferred even more if the story hadn’t actually strayed into the supernatural and remained more as an allegory of what grief+mental illness can do to a family. This is the territory where Jordan Graham’s Sator exists. Although you can follow the story as an entirely supernatural horror tale, Graham makes the film readable as a view on the destructive legacy of hereditary psychological collapse across generations of a single family.
Sator may test even the most patient horror fans with its slow, slow burn plot that requires puzzle work from its viewer. The story begins with Adam (Gabriel Nicholson). He lives at a cabin in the deep woods alone. He listens to old tapes of his mother (Wendy Taylor) rambling in subverted Biblical passages while checking deer cam footage on an ageing laptop. He gets an occasional visit from his brother, Pete (Michael Daniel). A big part of their lives is their grandmother, Nani (June Peterson). She, like her own daughter, hears spirits. Nani doesn’t seem overly delusional, neither does she appear violent, whereas her daughter may have been. Adam seems to hear the voices, too. He struggles with reality to a point where others don’t feel safe around him.
Is a demonic presence plaguing this family?
Or, do Adam, his mother, and his grandmother all suffer from the same delusions?
“Are you ready to have dominion
over every creeping thing that creeps?”
Throughout history prior to modern developments in medicine and psychology, mental illness, and conditions like seizures, were mistaken for demonic possession. It still occurs today in all cultures among the ultra-religious, whether in Catholicism, Islam, or Haitian Vodou. The superstitious believe that those who hear voices are afflicted by spirits. It’s destructive, ignoring extremely real issues. Graham depicts a whole family struggling with hereditary mental problems. Most of the family— Adam, Pete, their mother, and Nani— believe, to varying degrees, in a spirit called Sator, while the sister, Deborah (Aurora Lowe), adamantly insists it’s all a manifestation of madness. The voice of Sator is perfectly embedded in the sound design as whispers, strengthening the idea of an allegorical connection between demonic possession and serious mental illness.
Sator involves perpetual cycles of mental illness spanning three generations of a family, and Graham makes this generational focus a physical part of the film. There are several formats throughout, going from digital to film / analog (cassette tapes). These different formats represent the generations as much as they do the timeline. Current day scenes are shot regularly in colour. Past scenes shot in cropped black and white, like 8 mm videos from late ’80s / early ’90s-era cameras.
More than that, certain shots recur in the same place from one format to another, such as Adam seeing his mother isolated in her room, recording Sator scripture. These shots also relate to the generational aspect, in that the recurring shots in different formats speak to a cyclical nature of the family’s struggle over time.
If Sator is real, it explains mom’s illness, and grandma’s, and Adam’s, giving the unknowable substance. If it isn’t, then it’s all the random chaotic nature of human biology and inexplicable psychology, and there’s no justifiable meaning to the family’s deteriorating mental health. With mental illness, there are no answers, no meaning outside biological processes of the brain. Frequently we seek answers, even where there are none. It provides us comfort. Like Pete, who’s resigned to the fact Sator killed Nani’s husband, Grandpa Jim, unwilling to accept his mother was more than surely violent. He even expresses casual, violent suicidal ideation to his brother: “I would‘ve put a shotgun in my mouth by now if this is where I thought I‘d end up.”
The delusions are more serious with Adam. He suffers from apophenia— perceiving connections between unrelated things— to a much more worrisome extent, crossing totally over into the supernatural. Case and point is his printed off picture from the deer came footage. The grainy, lightened footage shows what could be figures in the trees, like the harbingers of Sator cloaked in animal furs / skulls. They’re more like bits of static Adam has willed into looking like demons, wanting them to be real because it will give meaning to the idea of Sator rather than him having to admit the family’s tragic legacy.
“They have chosen you
from the furnace
The reworked Bible passages Adam listens to on his mother’s recordings are the result of mental illness presenting itself as religious delusion. Mom weaves Christianity together with other sources, a kind of jambalaya of religious and occult references mashed together as one mess of dangerous fantasy. Graham makes subtle reference to this apart from a subversion of Biblical quotes.
In the scene with Deborah reading her mother’s writings, she sits next to a desk where several books are visible. Two of the most prominent texts are the Jerusalem Bible and the Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology by Rossell Hope Robbins. These texts showcase blurred lines between occultism and organised religion, signifying a confused mental state in the mother, and illustrating how psychotic mental illness can manifest as extreme religious belief.
What is delusion and what is faith?
As previously mentioned, historically, religious faith has often been confused with madness, at least conditionally. Think Joan of Arc, a woman— hearing voices got her burned at the stake. Then there are the men who received divine inspiration to write scripture for the Bible, and they’re not considered mad. Nani’s “automatic writing” could be seen by some as scripture, by others as schizophrenia.
Where is the line? It exists where figurative delusions cross over into dangerous reality.
I know what it’s like to suffer with mental illness, as well as the stigma— I’ve spent the better part of two decades dealing with bipolar II disorder. Nevertheless, when left untreated, a person’s illness can potentially become a danger, to themselves and others. Graham represents this process with Adam initially feeling / seeing a nebulous spirit in the woods. His fears of Sator grow until he perceives a physical creature stalking him, symbolic of how mental illness starts in the mind and, if left unchecked, becomes a very literal, harmful presence in a person’s life. When untreated mental health issues are mixed with a heady cocktail of religious delusion, the results can be terrifying.
Compare Adam’s ultimate fate, and what he visits upon others in his family, to 23-year-old Bruce Blackman, from Coquitlam in British Columbia, Canada. Blackman suffered a slow, steady schizophrenic decline. His family didn’t get him the help he needed, despite obviously serious warning signs. He slipped into religious madness, believing in demonic possession and an imminent apocalyptic event, eventually culminating in him killing six of his own family members on January 18th, 1983. Adam’s family alienated him and let him become increasingly isolated in the woods, just as Bruce’s family neglected to get him the proper mental healthcare. The results are much the same, in all their brutality.
Sator is as much an experience in the art of film making itself as it is a horror story. Graham’s non-linear storytelling, the purposefully disjointed editing at times, and his use of different film formats enhances a fairly basic premise into something profound. It plays well as a straight up tale of one family’s perpetual clash with a demonic entity, burning slow with pure, constant dread and a couple brief bursts of utterly ferocious violence. It’s just as effective on the level of allegory, providing a crushing look at a family laid to waste by their inability to properly see / treat deteriorating mental health.
There’s an obviously personal core to the film. It shows in how Graham treats his subject matter, plus how many hats he wore during production (director / producer / writer / cinematographer / editor / casting / production design / gaffer / grip / more). No matter how one reads Sator, they’ll not forget it easily, and, like myself, they may find themselves thinking of it endlessly in the middle of the dark, dark night.