The woods are alive, with whispers from Sator. Not sah-tore the accented billionaire with an obsession for temporal damnation — this is say-tur who is believed to rule every part of and haunt everything in an undisclosed U.S. forest. According to tape recordings heard throughout the film, Sator is a keen watcher. An antlered illuminator. A patient recruiter of souls. And yours is the next one he seeks to claim.

Even with that much established lore, however, not to mention an intro north of The VVitch and an outro south of Hereditary, Sator doesn’t offer a definitive — or, at its most generous, easy — answer to whether this being among the trees is tangible or imagined. But it’s unnerving either way, right? (Arthur C. Clarke would agree). There’s only confidence in the way director Jordan Graham, who is also the film’s writer, producer, cinematographer, composer, sound designer, sound mixer, costume designer and more, presents both sides of the coin; scenes that suggest Sator being a deity who thrives when nights are darkest are as sobering as those reinforcing it being the clearest symptom of a fading mind. Our forlorn, taciturn protagonist Adam (Gabriel Nicholson) is aware of this, but the result of that is a refusal to react to it, as demonstrated by a daily routine of simply waking up to hunt and then returning to the cabin (that Graham built!) for one more beer bottle and one more play of those aforementioned recordings. Apparently, the line “And after you have suffered a little while, he will refine you” works as a sleep aid.

Navigating towards the truth, or a semblance of it, in Sator then becomes a mission for the viewer. Incredible and incredibly unsettling soundscape shall accompany you. Being ill-equipped with understanding is the default. Guidance is sparing, and it mainly comes from Adam’s kind brother Pete (Michael Daniel), without whom would make Sator an even quieter experience (the character breaks the silence twelve minutes into the film). The normal reaction here is to be frustrated at Adam’s passivity, but that is not the right one. As we come across the artful, nearly pitch-black dreams — are they? — that liven the woods to Sator’s tastes or the documentarian, pillarboxed (and in black-and-white) chats that validate it as an alias for dementia, we discover why Adam is a recluse. He chooses to be. The voice from those recordings? It’s his Mother (Wendy Taylor). Who else knows about Sator? His grandma, Noni (the late June Peterson, whom the film is dedicated to), through her automatic writings. Adam, through Nicholson’s eye expressions alone, believes that Sator is familial. It is hereditary. It doesn’t matter if it is grief in the guise of a beast or a beast donning the mask of grief, it is coming for him. It will. And the closer it gets, the more surreal and freaky the nightmares become, in construction and execution. Graham is rendering Adam not as a coward but as helpless instead.

Then, a diminishing move from Graham in the final minutes. Ambiguity is still emphasised, but there is now incredible violence and impassioned delivery of confirming statements. Just fleeting, but they are there. Just fleeting, but they undermine the glacial-yet-absorbing magic Sator has been brewing throughout, that of finding as much comfort being a horror about a simmering tragedy, as one about a dark folklore. A neck gushing out crimson is not as disturbing as spotting, or thinking that you’ve spotted, what is using the trees to hide. Hearing agonising screams don’t chill the spine as much as realising there are two voices delivering the same line. Had Graham upped the ante with the same dream-like quality as he does for some 70 minutes prior, Sator would place its claws in your dreams and its mumblings would make chilling sense. At the same time, who’s to say that a distant figure speaking an unintelligible tongue is terror-free?

Rating: ★★★

Sator is now available on Shudder.