SXSW Review: Sinister

Ethan Hawke steals the show in a classy but unremarkable murder mystery.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


The Super Secret Screening of the SXSW Film Festival was Sinister, a horror film from Summit Entertainment releasing next October. It’s a solid, well made movie but I don’t think it’s going to benefit from the early buzz. It’s not a revolutionary must see, just a good thriller if you happen to see it.

Ellison Oswald (Ethan Hawke) is a true crime writer with one big hit and two subsequent failures. He moves his family into the house of a murdered family to research his latest book, and wouldn’t you know it, weird stuff happens in addition to discovering the already disturbing details of the crime.

The film respects its audience. It’s clear that this is the house of the crime we see in the first shot, but no one ever says, “By the way this is the murder house.” They talk around it because adults know what they’re talking about. Oswald’s marriage and family life are well illustrated. His wife says if the third book goes as bad as his last two did for their family, she’s taking the kids, and he accepts that as sensitive and fair.

The mystery is solidly compelling. The crimes are elaborate enough and the details weird enough that you want to know what happened, but not to the mind blowing degree that you have to talk about it until October. Oswald asks the right questions as he’s investigating this murder. He researches the film reels left behind in sort of a Blow Up style. He uses consumer technology to duplicate, slow down and retouch the footage.

There are boom scares, and subtle images that may get under your skin. Scary stuff happens on his computer screen and some real world stuff with Oswald’s son is freaky. Once the film gets really into the creepy images, some of them are quite beautiful. There’s good lighting and shadows in the frame, constructing a space smaller than the screen.

The weirdness drives Oswald crazy and Hawke gets to freak out. He’s trying so hard to prove himself and get his reputation back, but he’s really a desperate A-hole. There are a few good supporting actors but it’s Hawke’s show.

Again, this movie is solid. Horror fans will love the way it delivers on the genre with some inventive artistic flourish. It doesn’t quite go to the next level that gets me like an Insidious but I’m not sorry I stayed up ‘til 4:00am (daylight savings happened during the midnight screening) to see it early.