In the last few years, filmmakers like Ari Aster (Hereditary) and Robert Eggers (The Witch) have created some of the bleakest and most affecting horrors in the genre’s history. These filmmakers have crafted masterful and terrifying dramas that have balanced atmosphere and foreboding dread with compelling narratives. But as has always been the case in Hollywood, these innovative and fresh successes always inspire copycats.
Jordan Graham’s Sator (subtitled The Beast Within in the UK) is a film desperate to mimic the aforementioned filmmakers’ winning style, with a bleak story of a sinister supernatural entity plaguing a family in a desolate forest. But while Sator certainly brings enough atmosphere to the table to send a chill down viewers’ spines, the tediously incomprehensible narrative creates a film that is occasionally soulless and empty. Through mumbled dialogue and rather wooden performances, the film’s thin attempts at a cerebral, cryptic tale actually make way to reveal a rather non-existent story, causing the film to drag despite a short 80-minute runtime.
It’s far from hopeless, though. Sator’s visuals are hauntingly beautiful, and give the micro-budget film a surprising level of quality. From the claustrophobic interior of the dusty cabin (amazingly, built specifically for the film by the multi-talented director/writer/producer Jordan Graham) to the terrifyingly endless darkness of the forest, Sator certainly looks stunning. The sound design – which, in itself, took up 15 months of the film’s near-6-year post-production – is equally harrowing, pulling the viewer into the isolated woodland with its ominous whispers and unsettling silence.
But there’s only so much this atmosphere can do when there are so little evident stakes in the narrative. It is impossible to be emotionally invested in the characters when we have absolutely no idea who they are, or even what they’re saying most of the time. Ambiguity can be an excellent asset to the horror genre when handled well – but when the viewer is left intentionally in the dark for the duration, the end result is often frustratingly empty.
Special mention should go to filmmaker Jordan Graham, though, who did almost everything himself on the project over an arduous 6+ years of production. If nothing else, his commitment and passion for the project do shine through and present an intriguing singular vision. It’s fascinating to learn that Graham based the film on ‘truth’ – ie. this monstrous being has been plaguing his family and he created the film as a means of exorcising the demons. A mixed-media approach (intercutting real footage of the director’s family discussing their experiences with the demonic entity) often results in the film struggling to feel cohesive, but does offer a glimpse at the fascinating ‘true’ story behind the film. If anything, the story behind the film is more interesting than the film itself – and we can only hope Graham recycles some of this real footage in a documentary about his family in the future.
Sator shows a lot of promise for filmmaker Jordan Graham, as there are certainly some effective moments in the film. While an incomprehensible narrative may threaten to derail Sator, a haunting visual style and harrowing sound design make it worth a look for horror aficionados.