There’s a thin line between dread & tedium and, unfortunately, the cheaper your film is the likelier it is you’re on the wrong side of it. It used to be that horror movies set on spaceships post-Alien would struggle most with that conundrum, as they often failed to match the exquisite tension of their inspo. Now we’re officially in an era where The Witch inspires that same mediocrity in bulk, just in a woodland setting. It took a lot of decent-to-great movies to get here (Hagazussa, Relic, The Other Lamb, The Ritual, Apostle, The Head Hunter, It Comes at Night, etc.) but we’re finally at the point where we simply just don’t need any more low-budget ~atmospheric~ horrors set in the woods, at least not for a while. I can pinpoint the exact moment that line was crossed too. It’s in the opening credits of Sator, which repurposes the final shot of The Witch as an early moodsetter instead of a last-second cathartic release. It’s literally picking up where The Witch left off, highlighting its diminished returns before it ever has a chance to stand out on its own. We’re done with the woods for a while, folks. Time to pack up the tents.
To be honest, even without the shadow of The Witch lingering across woodland-horror cinema at large, you’d have to dial the clock back to even before The Blair Witch Project for Sator feel fresh or exciting in any significant way. Its most attention-grabbing details are in the circumstances of its production: a no-budget family affair written, shot, directed, produced, edited and scored by Jordan Graham. You can tell this is a deeply personal project for Graham, not only because of his obsessively auteurist control over the entire production but also because of his casting his own grandmother, June Peterson, in a central role. Like the grandmother figure in Trey Edward Shults’s similarly underfunded Krisha, Peterson appears to be suffering enough from dementia that she’s not fully aware she’s participating in a movie production at all. The film is structured around several trips to grandma’s house in the woods, wherein Peterson pontificates about a local demon figure named Sator who possesses the bodies of the spiritually weak. She discovered the existence of this demon through automatic-writing exercises, which provide most of the loopy, vaguely menacing atmosphere the film can muster through her mumbled monologues. The film that Graham builds around that automatic-writing core is some pretty basic Indie Horror 101 material. Grainy black & white tours of a candlelit cottage are crammed into a boxed-in aspect ratio, scored with cassette tapes of Peterson’s audio journals and occasionally interrupted by the mythical Sator – a cloaked humanoid figure in a deer skull mask. As much as I admire the scrappy, D.I.Y. feel of its production values, I just can’t shake the feeling that I’ve taken that exact haunted-cottage tour a dozen too many times in the past couple decades, if not just in the past five years.
My overriding thought throughout Sator was “Do I want a snack or am I bored?” I ate some Ritz crackers, and the feeling did not go away. In the abstract, I’m in love with the idea of automatic-writing exercises leading directly to demonic possession; I spent too many years chasing down a bachelor’s degree in Poetry for that premise not to appeal to me. The actual text of those automatic-writing journals never feels specific enough in its mythology or iconography to land with any real impact, though. They mostly just recall Bray Wyatt’s pro wrestling sermons when his in-ring character was Insufferable True Detective Fan. They drone on with no clear sense of purpose, and the visual iconography that accompanies them never amounts to anything novel or substantial. It’s likely not fair to single out this particular example of post-Witch woodlands horror as the subgenre’s tipping point, but hey, this is the one that dares to repeat the final image of Robert Eggers’s A24 Horror linchpin in its opening minutes. Once that comparison is invited, it’s impossible not to look back to the steadily diminishing returns of the genre in the years since Black Phillip’s enticing offer of the taste of butter & a pretty dress and to long for the days when that kind of whispered oration felt goosebumps-fresh.