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Movie Review: Shyamalan’s “KNOCK AT THE CABIN” is worth answering

Thursday, February 2, 2023 | Reviews


Starring Dave Bautista, Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Written by M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman

Centering on a confined indoor space seems to bring out the better side of M. Night Shyamalan as a filmmaker. Until now, his last best movie was THE VISIT, about a trip to Grandma and Grandpa’s place gone sour, and before that it was the farmhouse-bound SIGNS. His latest–like its source novel, Paul Tremblay’s THE CABIN AT THE END OF THE WORLD–announces its setting in the title, and also the film’s first, relatable shiver. Who wouldn’t be unsettled if they were off on a vacation at a remote cabin in the middle of the woods, and there was an unexpected knock at the door?

In this case, there’s a bit of a warning, as little Wen (Kristen Cui) is collecting grasshoppers outside when she’s approached by Leonard (Dave Bautista), a friendly-talking but nonetheless imposing stranger. Very shortly, after Wen has fled back inside to apparent safety with her adoptive fathers Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), Leonard is joined by three more strangers, and the loud, insistent knock is followed by the quartet smashing their way through the windows and front door. Andrew, the injured Eric and Wen are tied to chairs, fearing for their lives from the group, who are all armed with homemade, nasty-looking weapons.

What makes this more interesting than your typical home-invasion scenario is that the intruders’ purpose is not to hurt or kill them, but to confront them with just as awful a proposition. Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird, from Shyamalan’s previous OLD), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint) claim that they have all received visions of a coming apocalypse, and the only way it can be stopped: One of the family must be willingly sacrificed by the others, giving their life to save the world. It’s a terrific setup that establishes plenty of dramatic conflicts and questions–not even counting the one that nobody addresses in the heat of the moment, which is, what kind of God or other supreme being would pose such a horrible task to innocent people?

One thing that makes KNOCK AT THE CABIN work is that its “villains” also take pains to present themselves as regular people, with ordinary jobs, in a couple of cases with children in their care. They’re going about their mission reluctantly, even as its clear that they’ll do everything they have to in order to convince Andrew and Eric to take them seriously, and to carry out their duty to humanity. There’s a horrifying moment about a third of the way in demonstrating just how committed they are to their calling, and after Andrew and Eric quite understandably refuse to go through with the group’s demands, evidence begins airing on the cabin’s TV, in the form of news reports of global disasters, that great destructive forces are indeed at play.

There are rational answers to a lot that happens in the first hour or so of KNOCK AT THE CABIN, which fuels Andrew’s determination that he and his family are being targeted for some other reason–most likely persecution rooted in homophobia. Shyamalan makes judicious use of flashbacks revealing what fuels that certainty (and a potential past connection to the quartet), which adds an extra level to the suspense. The director also, working with cinematographers Jarin Blaschke (Robert Eggers’ regular DP) and Lowell A. Mayer, employs tight closeups and occasional off-kilter angles to build tension and a sense of entrapment within the cabin, with enough brief trips outside to leaven the claustrophobia.

Shyamalan is less successful, as has become typical in his movies, with what his characters say. This is not, blessedly, the endless string of awkward lines that OLD was, but there are a number of them in KNOCK AT THE CABIN that feel forced and stilted enough to momentarily take the audience out of the action. This declaratory/expository stuff is enough to make one curious to read the original, Black Listed script by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, which Shyamalan rewrote. And speaking of changes, the film takes a major change of course away from the events of Tremblay’s book that is sure to make it controversial among the author’s fans, even if you can understand why Shyamalan did it.

The filmmaker has been inarguably successful with his casting, particularly of Bautista, taking a step away from his more lighthearted turns in the GUARDIAN OF THE GALAXY adventures and GLASS ONION to very believably enact a man who is deeply conflicted about what he has to do, but committed enough to lead his new cohorts in carrying it out. Amuka-Bird, Quinn and Grint each establish a distinctive personality as his followers, and Aldridge, Groff and Cui have strong, sympathetic family chemistry. Topped off by Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s consistently unnerving score, KNOCK AT THE CABIN overcomes its sometimes unbelievable dialogue via the sense that everyone on screen truly believes in what they’re doing.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).