Perhaps the most shocking and scary aspect of M. Night Shyamalan’s latest movie Knock at the Cabin is how quickly the plot unfolds. Within the first seven minutes, we are introduced to all our characters, and the threat is laid out. For a moment, you start to wonder if all the trailers featuring a small family jamming out to “Boogie Shoes” by KC and the Sunshine Band in a car were a red herring. For a moment, you start to wonder if this horror-thriller wisely chooses to ditch the typical and lazy introductions commonly found in these movies. For a moment, you start to wonder if Shyamalan had made his strongest movie in years.
And after a tense and suspenseful 25-30 minutes, we unnecessarily flash back, and what could’ve been a potential classic ends up becoming a conventional and safe—yet solid—invasion thriller.
While vacationing at a cabin in the woods, Andrew (Ben Aldridge), Eric (Jonathan Groff), and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) encounter four strangers—Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint)—and are held hostage. The strangers believe the apocalypse is coming and the only way to prevent it is for one of the three family members to be sacrificed.
Adapted from the 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Shyamalan has the opportunity to combine weighty and sometimes frightening themes, like family, morality, mortality, and sacrifice, with his brand of horror. And to his credit, he starts off really well. As mentioned before, the movie wastes no time in getting started. The cabin invasion scene is unnerving, to say the least. We already know so much about the intruders simply by the way they break into the cabin. Leonard tries to reason with the fathers and waits till the last minute to break in whereas Redmond is hotheaded and immediately tries to break the window. It’s moments like these where this movie shines and where Shyamalan trusts his audience.
But, as is the case with most of his movies, the execution is suspect and he just can’t quit the “Shyamalanisms.” We flashback multiple times (albeit briefly) to offer information that proves to be inconsequential. At essentially 95 minutes, the film doesn’t necessarily drag but these portions stop the movie in its tracks. The discussion of letting seven billion people die versus killing one member of the family does more than any flashback or exposition dump could do.
What ends up being the most disappointing aspect of Knock at the Cabin is that Shyamalan ends up playing it safe. After a twist in the first act, the film doesn’t take any chances, which is sad to see from a filmmaker who’s built a career on creative risks. The movie doesn’t subvert any expectations and plays out in a traditional fashion. Even movies like Old, where the final twist/ending doesn’t really work, are interesting because he makes bold choices. This one just loses steam in its second half.
It’s fair to say Knock at the Cabin is more of a disappointing movie rather than a bad one. It’s not a bad movie—objectively speaking, it gets the job done. But, we are in an era where the best horror/psychological thrillers challenge us and do something we haven’t seen before. Zach Cregger’s rollicking and fascinating Barbarian is a great example of what horror should be like. There are some aspects of this movie that fit that successful mold, but the final product is far from it.
For starters, Bautista is outstanding in what should be the first of many lead roles (that don’t require a green screen). His towering, brutal physicality does half of the work but his tender approach to this character is what stands out. Very rarely do we see a performance that comforts and scares us simultaneously. Shyamalan lets him cook and he doesn’t disappoint. The camerawork is equally impressive. Shyamalan works with Robert Eggers’ frequent collaborator Jarin Blaschke (who shot the stunning and now-safe-to-call-underrated The Northman) for the first time with incredible results. Some shots are uncomfortably intimate and claustrophobic where the character’s face doesn’t even fit the screen and others that use the vastness and emptiness of the cabin and woods to evoke a visceral reaction. The camera whips around in interesting ways and one hopes this is the first of many collaborations between the pair.
I’d imagine those who are looking to watch a sub-two hour engaging thriller will be quite satisfied with Knock at the Cabin. But, it’s frustrating to see Shyamalan show us that he can evolve and keep up with this new wave of horror only for it to culminate in something that’s frankly generic. I hope he continues to work with interesting actors and technicians. I hope even more that he takes bold swings, creates something subversive, and delivers us another classic like The Sixth Sense.
Knock at the Cabin is not that.