On-screen credits aside, nothing about “Sator” suggests it’s a practically one-man movie. Which makes it all the more impressive that writer-director Jordan Graham performed nearly every nonacting task on this first feature, including building the rustic cabin that his protagonist lives in. Stripped-down in an aesthetically refined way, this cryptic occult drama may be more impressive in its striking atmospherics than in its somewhat murky storytelling. Nonetheless, that arresting presentation makes for an impressive debut one hopes is followed up sooner rather than later — as the virtually solo process meant “Sator” has been in post-production for nearly six years. Well, at least the labor paid off.
This is the classic instance of a horror film that will please discerning viewers largely for what it doesn’t do, while more mainstream genre fans will chafe at the relative lack of gore, action and explication, complaining that “nothing happens.” But anyone can pull off a jump scare or three. Graham immediately manages the considerably more difficult task of conjuring a mood of general dread, suffusing ordinary settings with supernatural unease.
Actually, hairy, handsome but withdrawn Adam (an often wordlessly expressive Gabe Nicholson) doesn’t live in a particularly ordinary setting, but in a deep-woods Northern California cabin that looks as though it might have been built a century or two ago. He has electricity, at least most of the time, and vehicular transport. Yet otherwise his isolated lifestyle might be that of a 19th-century hunter-trapper.
It takes a while before we realize that he has family nearby, namely brother Pete (Michael Daniel), sister Evie (Rachel Johnson) and senile grandma Noni (June Peterson) — let alone that they may have farmed him out to this well-separated spot for their own safety as well as his. By the time we’ve sussed out those relationships, we’ve already realized that the spottily functional “deer-cams” Adam has trained on the woods outside his home aren’t intended to track venison, but something even more elusive that he’s very afraid of.
Bookending the film and interwoven throughout are black-and-white video interviews with Noni as she discusses her lifelong communications with the titular entity. Sator is a guiding (one might say manipulating, from the sound of it) spirit she’s experienced as benevolent. But the grandchildren’s mother apparently had a more destructive association with the same being, resulting in her current absence and assorted other hinted-at familial tragedies.
The disappearance of Adam’s dog is the first significant sign that Sator is homing in on him now too. Though eventually we’re given little room to doubt, Graham keeps us uncertain for a long time about whether this menace is something real (however spectral), or if the issue is really a mental-health one that Adam may have inherited from Mum and Granny.
Tension is effectively ratcheted up, and phenomena grow more visually explicit. But there is a muddled quality to the script, particularly as we find ourselves confronting three imposing, antlered forest demons, while only one is named. This is no doubt due to circumstances Graham explained after one Fantasia screening: When budget limitations forced him to shoot partly in his actual grandmother’s house, he decided not just to include her as a cast member but to videotape her ramblings about Sator — an actual (if presumably imaginary) presence in her life, as well as that of at least one other relative. (Sator was forceful enough to guide Peterson’s hand through reams of “automatic writing,” some of which purported spiritual channeling we see on screen.)
This material proved so compelling, he began altering the hitherto Sator-free screenplay to incorporate it, well into production. So the resulting movie at times seems not so much usefully ambiguous as simply confused about who, or what, its source of fear is.
Unless you’re a very literal-minded viewer of fantastical storytelling, however, this doesn’t matter so much, because Graham gets so much out of the film’s sonic and visual textures. Whether filming a nearly pitch-black cabin interior, the same dotted with ritual candles, or the surrounding forest by day or night, his compositions are spookily beautiful. Ditto the sound design, which provides not so much a conventional score as an alternately ominous and reactive audioscape of ambient noises, drawn from both nature and a foley artist’s trick bag.
You may not come out of Graham’s film with much definite sense of just what Sator is or wants (though the eventuality of some dead people has made it clear what it can do), but you emerge with the uncommon feeling of having dreamed someone else’s somber, unsettling dream.