The Mist meets Sophie’s Choice in director M. Night Shyamalan’s newest sci-fi-horror mashup, Knock at the Cabin, when a family is confronted with the impending end of the world and faced with making the ultimate sacrifice. Talk about a tough day.
Shyamalan brings with him a lot of expectations—mostly low these days, I am sorry to say. But then again, those preconceived notions make it easier to be pleasantly surprised. I thoroughly enjoyed his earlier movies (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) but have disliked or felt ambivalent about most of his latest (The Visit, Glass, Old). Knock at the Cabin is not a return to form but it’s a good start.
This taut ensemble, single-location (mostly) apocalyptic pulse-pounder is based on the bestselling novel, Cabin at the End of the World, by Paul Tremblay. But the author doesn’t take part in the screenplay and fans of the book may be disappointed to find a couple of major, ultimately schmaltzy, changes.
Knock at the Cabin opens on a young girl collecting grasshoppers in the forest; 7-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) is engrossed in her hobby when she’s startled by the arrival of a hulking, but not intimidating, stranger, Leonard (Dave Bautista). Leonard uses charm to disarm the girl, whose dads, she says, have told her never to talk to strangers. Leonard seems surprised—dads? Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff), Wen explains, have brought her to the cabin for a weekend vacation and they’re having all sorts of fun, but she really must get home. Then she sees more people on the path in the otherwise deserted woods. A spooked Wen makes a break for it, running to the safety of the log cabin, where Andrew and Eric are lounging. When she tells them of the “stranger danger” the men rush to lock the front door. And then comes… the knock.
Leonard is back and he’s not alone. Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redman (Rupert Grint) are with him, demanding entry. All four of them are carrying unusual, homemade weapons and, they say, the fate of the world depends on Andrew, Eric, and Wen. Eventually, they force their way inside and take the family captive but, they say, “Just to talk.” They explain to the understandably upset tied-up trio that they must make a choice: Murder one of their own, or let Armageddon destroy the world. Leonard turns on the TV to show that it’s already beginning… there are tsunamis, fires, mass plane crashes, and more, suddenly and collectively ravaging the planet.
Between their present predicament, we see several flashbacks about how the loving same-sex couple adopted their little girl, troubles they’ve had with homophobic family members, and even strangers… but wait. One of those “strangers” is now here in the cabin with them. Surely this whole thing has to be a lie—is it some elaborate ruse to justify a hate crime? Are the four strangers part of a death cult? Are they… telling the truth?
So, that’s the premise and thankfully Knock at the Cabin is fast-paced and relatively short, never wearing out its welcome. Of course, there’s only so much the filmmakers can do with this enormous concept that’s otherwise simple and straightforward: kill a loved one now, or die later with the rest of humanity.
Needless to say, there are quite a few plot holes—pretty much a given in any sci-fi-based story that touches on precognition vs Biblical prophecy, sealed fate vs free will, religion vs spiritualism, and so on. Some head-scratchers are more cut-and-dried: for instance, how does the character who’s hiding in the shower with the water running emerge bone dry? There’s also no explanation of the crude, handmade weapons made by the alarmists, and no clarification on why they waited so long to confront the family, since it seems they’ve known of their mission for months, at least. You’ve just gotta go with it.
While the more intense scenes are well-directed, horror fans might be disappointed by the lack of gore—scenes of violence take place off-camera, and those who do die don’t suffer. Not that we’re looking for a Saw movie here but Knock at the Cabin is rated R, so the coyness feels like a copout.
The entire cast is faultless and they each make an impression but the standouts are young Cui and veteran Bautista. They’re on “opposite” sides of the conundrum but the actors make you feel for their respective motivations to stay alive in the face of ultimate evil.
I liked Knock at the Cabin overall, but I don’t urge you to knock yourself out running to see it on the big screen—it’ll be just as entertaining (or maddening) at home.