There’s another M. Night Shyamalan horror movie out, an unpleasant little effort called Knock at the Cabin. It’s another one of his low-budget, self-financed films that he’s been making since 2015, including The Visit (2015), Split (2016), Glass (2019), and Old (2021). And though I liked aspects of The Visit, his new movies just make me wonder how he ever pulled off his big career-making hit The Sixth Sense (1999) all those years ago.
Shyamalan says he makes low-budget films now because that way he can keep total creative control. It seems Shyamalan learned nothing from the notoriously awful Lady in the Water (2006), during which he would brook no interference and had his own way in everything and created a monstrously unwatchable mess with no one to blame but himself.
Knock at the Cabin isn’t that bad, but it’s half-baked and awkward and unconvincing in a way that proves, if it really needed proving, that not everyone can be an auteur just because they consider themselves auteurs. Take the title, for starters. It’s not good. I can never remember it and keep automatically trying to fix it by calling it Knock on the Cabin Door, which still isn’t good, but at least it doesn’t sound like a strangely unfinished title, as if the person writing it had been shot before finishing.
The film is based on a 2018 novel by Paul Tremblay that actually had a complete title, The Cabin at the End of the World. Which is better, for sure. Shyamalan’s movie is about what initially appears to be a violent home invasion, but it turns out to be heralds of the apocalypse doing all that knocking on the cabin door. This is made clear in all the trailers, it’s not really a spoiler to tell you this — and that’s part of the problem. The vacationing family in the cabin, a gay couple and their adopted daughter, are the only ones who refuse to understand what’s happening when the home-invading foursome starts spouting off about their visions of humanity being judged and condemned and destroyed unless this small family picks one of their own to sacrifice to an apparently angry Old Testament god.
But we get it immediately, and keep on getting it for the whole running time. The foursome, made up of random strangers from all walks of life — all compelled by the same holy but horrible visions — are generally well-played by Dave Bautista, Rupert Grint, Nikki Amuka-Bird, and Abby Quinn. They do no end of introducing themselves and explaining and pleading and proving their case with newscasts showing the ghastly destruction of another region of the world through natural disasters, fast-spreading diseases, sudden system failures, and so on. At the end of each “judgment,” one of the four submits to being sacrificed in a bloody way by the others.
But the two dads in the cabin (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) refuse to believe anything is happening other than being taken hostage by a bunch of religious cult sickos who hate gay people, pretty much right up till the last sequence. Flashbacks to the abuse they’ve endured because of homophobia are there to explain why they hold out so stubbornly, repeating their mantra to each other, “Always together.” Then a sudden expository dump of dialogue near the end explains their sudden turnaround. That’s an awful lot of explaining going on for a movie.
Of course, Knock at the Cabin is designed to exploit our terror of End Times that we live out every day, but in this case, it just seems irritating — this crass attempt at topicality ginning up our manifest fears. And it seems pretty heinous, having that little girl actor playing the daughter (Kristen Cui) subjected to so much simulated murder and apocalyptic mayhem.
The promotional interviews with Shyamalan and the cast make it sound as if it’s important that we watch it and give our precarious existences a good think. But it’s not at all clear how a film about the whole vast cataclysm being due to God’s wrath, a judgment on us for being his own rotten creations, helps us think about what to do in the face our very real predicament. Maybe just wait for that damn “knock at the cabin…?” Ugh.