Knock at the Cabin is 'passably tense'

1 month ago 8

(Image credit:

Universal Pictures


 Universal Pictures)

Despite its intriguing premise, M Night Shyamalan's new high-concept chiller Knock at the Cabin has "one-dimensional characters and functional dialogue", writes Nicholas Barber.


M Night Shyamalan's latest high-concept chiller, Knock at the Cabin, gives the "home invasion" film a fiendish twist. Its heroes are Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), a happily married couple on holiday with their adopted seven-year-old daughter (Kristen Cui). They've chosen to stay in a remote cabin, deep in a Pennsylvanian forest (actually, the "cabin" is bigger than most people's houses, but that's beside the point), even though staying in a remote cabin is always a bad idea in scary movies.

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Inevitably, four strangers come a-knocking. They're all carrying horrible-looking home-made weapons, such as an axe-pitchfork combo, and one of them, Leonard, is a heavily tattooed man-mountain played by Dave Bautista, so it seems as if the film will be a Funny Games-style ordeal in which innocent victims are terrorised by sadistic monsters. And, on one level, that's what it is. There's a burst of window-smashing and horrible-looking weapon-waving, and Andrew and Eric are left tied to their chairs. The twist, though, is that the strangers (also played by Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Abby Quinn) don't want to torture or kill their captives. They want to persuade them, humbly and politely, that the world is about to be destroyed by a series of fiery cataclysms, and that the only way to avert this is if the family chooses one member to be sacrificed for the greater good.

Adapted from The Cabin at the End of the World, a novel by Paul Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin sees Shyamalan returning to the apocalyptic concerns of two of his earlier films, Signs and The Happening. They're timely concerns, considering how anxious so many of us are about pandemics, wars and the climate crisis. And the question of what you might sacrifice for the sake of the planet is a fascinating one. But Knock at the Cabin ends up being no more than a passably tense, low-budget chamber piece that doesn't do justice to its Old Testament conceit. 

The problem is that almost everything worth knowing about the film is in the trailer – and indeed in the plot summary in this review. Shyamalan establishes within half an hour that there are only two likely ways for the story to go: either the strangers are lying, and the business about the apocalypse is nonsense, or else they're not lying, and a sacrifice really is necessary to save humanity. What that means is that the viewer spends most of the running time sitting and waiting to learn which answer is the right one (and anyone who's seen the trailer will have a pretty shrewd idea). The Shyamalan who made The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village 20-odd years ago might have blindsided us with a further twist which flipped our understanding of the whole situation. But in this film, as in his last one, Old, he puts all of his energy into setting up an intriguing premise, and none into moving on from that premise and into unexpected places.  

He and his co-writers, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, allude to a couple of interesting issues, such as the homophobia of the religious right, and the 21st-Century phenomenon of people making online contact with others who share their outlandish beliefs. But the screenplay doesn't give any of these issues more than a passing mention, nor does it comment seriously on the existential threats that face us in the real world. It feels as if the filmmakers are workshopping various different themes, without ever committing to any of them. 

They don't commit to terrifying us, either. Bautista proves, once again, to be a sensitive dramatic actor, rather than a wall of muscle, but Leonard and his crew are too relaxed to convince us of the urgency of their mind-boggling ultimatum. They don't seem crazed enough to be telling the truth about the apocalypse – and they don't seem crazed enough to be faking it. In fact, almost nothing in the film seems real. Stuck with one-dimensional characters and functional dialogue, the hostage-takers and their hostages sound more like school debate teams than desperate people trying to save their lives and / or the human race.

Knock at the Cabin

Directed by: M Night Shyamalan
Starring: Ben Aldridge, Jonathan Groff, Kristen Cui, Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird,  Abby Quinn
Film length: 1hr 40m

Maybe Shyamalan just doesn't possess the unsparing nastiness that this potentially upsetting story requires. He has certainly made Knock at the Cabin less dark and challenging than the source novel. And speaking of the novel, the film's biggest mystery is why Shyamalan replaced its monumental title, The Cabin at the End of the World, with such a rickety alternative. Perhaps he thought that Tremblay's version was too reminiscent of The Cabin in the Woods, in which case he made a sensible decision. Released in 2011, that film had a similar premise: several unlucky characters were stranded in a woodland cabin where they learnt that they had to be sacrificed to avert the apocalypse. But The Cabin in the Woods developed its premise with vastly more wit and imagination than Knock at the Cabin ever musters. 


Knock at the Cabin is released worldwide from 1 February 2023.

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