Review by James Lindorf
A lonely cabin in the woods is such a staple of the horror genre that it led to the 2011 movie “Cabin in the Woods.” After 14 movies, Director M. Night Shyamalan is finally taking us to the woods with “Knock at the Cabin.” Based on the 2019 Bram Stoker Award-winning novel “Cabin at the End of the World” by Paul G. Trembley, the film asks a simple question. What are you willing to do to prevent the end of humanity? One family’s answer will be unveiled when “Knock at the Cabin” opens in theaters everywhere on February 3rd.
Needing a break from their everyday schedules, a small family decided to rent a cabin on a lake in a remote part of Pennsylvania. The family consists of the precocious Wen (Kristen Cui), who is just days away from turning, Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff), and Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge). To their surprise, the place is even more idyllic than the pictures made it look. However, the peace and quiet are short-lived as four oddly dressed strangers arrive at the cabin wishing to speak with the family.
The quartet is led by the physically intimidating but soft-spoken Leonard (Dave Bautista), dressed in a crisp white button-down. The group also includes Adriane (Abby Quin) in a black button-down and doing her best to be friendly despite brimming with nervous energy. In the yellow button-down is Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), a woman whose actions speak of resolve but always looks like she’s on the edge of a breakdown. The final member in a bright red button-down is the abrasive Redmond (Rupert Grint). Leonard arrived first, briefly making friends with Wen while she was trying to catch grasshoppers.
When loud grinding footsteps on the dirt and rock driveway draws Wen’s attention, she is frozen by the peculiar site. Three more people arriving on foot, in palette-swapped versions of Leonard’s outfit, would be unsettling enough in the location. Still, it is the oddly shaped cobbled-together weapons the three are carrying that send the young girl scrambling for safety. What begins as a knock and a request to talk becomes an all-out assault on the cabin, ending with one parent restrained and the other unconscious and concussed. When everyone is awake, Leonard explains that they have traveled to this remote place and entered their cabin to deliver the message that Wen, Eric, and Andrew are the chosen family. They are the ones who will decide the fate of humanity. To stop the impending apocalypse, they only have to do two things. First, they must choose a family member to sacrifice, and second, they must kill the one they picked. Simple as that. If they say no, the seas will rise, skies will fall, a plague will sweep the globe, all the standard biblical threats.
“Knock at the Cabin” is not your standard horror movie or thriller. Typically, we have a first act where all the characters are introduced. We see them travel from the city to the rural area and maybe even get a hint as to what trouble awaits them. Instead, we enter mere seconds before the typical transition from act 1 to act 2. The audience may not know what is about to happen, but the moment’s energy lets you know it’s nothing good. “Knock at the Cabin” provides an interesting viewing experience because while it is tense and has elements of horror and action, that tension level rarely fluctuates. Initially, it is generated through the camera. Shyamalan and cinematographers Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer used angles that are just a little off-center or zoomed in and focused on just part of the actors’ faces. The tension starts at a nine and mostly wavers between an 8.5 and a 9.5 until the climax. Typically, the audience should be very uncomfortable at nine, ready to look away or jump at the slightest provocation. Because it is normal for this film, it becomes familiar, and brilliantly, the moments without that tension become the most disturbing.
Shyamalan worked with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, the writers of the acclaimed horror short “Monsters,” to adapt Trembley’s novel, which begins in the same fashion. Luckily for the writing team, Trembley’s book is relatively short, based in one location, and dialogue-heavy making it much easier to adapt than something as dense as “Lord of the Rings.” Unfortunately, easier does not necessarily mean easy. The screenplay contains either a poor decision or they could not figure out how to incorporate more information about the four intruders. If their characters were more complex, their discussions and arguments with Eric and Andrew could have been more complicated. The book feels very repetitive, with conflicts occurring over and over; the movie escapes the worst of that by being shorter but struggles to maintain forward momentum at times.
“Knock at the Cabin” contains all of Shyamalan’s favorite things. It takes place in Pennsylvania, it is about faith and the lack thereof, and it has an obligatory cameo from the director. This is his 15th movie, but when ranking them all, his first trip into the woods makes it into the director’s top five. It is engaging and thought-provoking, and it is very well-acted. It is safe to proclaim that, at this point, Bautista is the best wrestler turned actor. Cena is nipping at his heels, but as long as he continues to take on roles like this or in “Glass Onion,” Bautista should maintain his lead.
Nevertheless, some elements don’t bear scrutiny, and there are so many questions that the singular answer provided in the climax feels insufficient. It may be a more rewarding film to the faithful who will catch on earlier about the relationship to the four horsemen and what that may mean for the intruders, or maybe it is just a cute layer that provides nothing but more questions. “Knock at the Cabin” is a solid film that stands against the idea that February is a dumping ground for movies studios expect to underperform. While we have seen Shyamalan do much better with “The Sixth Sense” and “Split,” he still earns a strong 3.75 out of 5.
Rating: R (Violence and Language)
Genre: Mystery & Thriller, Drama
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Writer: M. Night Shyamalan, Steve Desmond, Michael Sherman
Release Date: February 3rd, 2023
Runtime: 1h 40m
Distributor: Universal Pictures
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