Right before the pandemic really kicked off, I read Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World. It had been the hot new horror novel on the block a little while back and I figured it to be an approachable, crowd-pleasing thriller…and what a shock I was in for when I was left an emotional wreck after experiencing a genuine nightmare unfold within the tight 288 pages of the novel. It’s the type of gut-punch horror that you simply can’t see coming, and once you realize what its whole “thing” is, it’s an inescapable, constricting hell, so obviously I loved it. I read shortly after that FilmNation Entertainment had already purchased the rights to the film adaptation, but I never really heard anything after that for a while. Meanwhile, in the world of M. Night Shyamalan, he has just released Old (so much better than most people say), and announces his next, mysterious project Knock at the Cabin, with little details. As the cast began to sign on, and details began to emerge, despite it being a Universal release without FilmNation, it dawned on me…this son of a bitch is adapting The Cabin at the End of the World. After the thrill I had gotten from Old, I knew that, while entirely different from what I was anticipating, this would be a unique vision of the story even at its worst.
Married couple Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) are beginning their vacation at a remote cabin in rural Pennsylvania. Enjoying the peace of nature, Wen is approached by a large stranger, Leonard (Dave Bautista), who informs her that her and her fathers will soon have to make a tough choice. Frightened, Wen returns to the cabin to warn her fathers before Leonard, as well as three others, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn), and Redmond (Rupert Grint), forcefully enter their cabin with weapons. Leonard soon explains to the now restrained family that they have been chosen to prevent the apocalypse, and to do so they must sacrifice one of the family, or billions will die. Unwilling to do so, the family bears witness to horrifying sights and begins to doubt whether these intruders are all that crazy to begin with.
I knew going in that Shyamalan was going to institute some pretty major changes to the source material, if only by the fact that the title was changed to Knock at the Cabin (which I really dislike compared to that of The Cabin at the End of the World), a tactic he similarly used when adapting Sandcastles by Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters into Old, which also had major plot revisions in the final product. I’m not one who really cares too terribly much if source material has to be changed to more seamlessly fit the cinematic medium, as long as the tone and feeling of the original is there, I’m down. While Knock at the Cabin certainly lightens things up a bit, that same feeling of inescapable dread remains, and that’s all I wanted.
When initially reviewing the casting of the film, I absolutely saw Groff, Aldridge, and Cui fill the roles assigned to them perfectly, though I was perplexed by the cast of intruders of the film, as they failed to really match up with my initial vision of them, particularly that of Bautista. But that casting paved the way for one of those beautiful moments where you get to really experience an actor explode from the barriers of their typecasting that so many actors with careers like Bautista never get to have. He’s had the moments with small roles in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Dune (2021), but getting to see his top-billed lead villain moment, let alone with one as oddly comforting and almost sympathetic in his cause as Leonard’s really solidifies Bautista as a real jack-of-all-trades within the industry. The rest of the cast also plays wonderfully together, with Aldridge, Groff, Cui, and co-standout Amuka-Bird joining Bautista in the “You’re so clearly a villain but I want to trust you” caliber of performance.
Shot on 35 mm by frequent Robert Eggers collaborator Jarin Blaschke, Knock at the Cabin also showcases lenses from the 1990s which give the film a more “old-school thriller” look, according to Shyamalan. With so many other genre films mostly having long since switched to the easier, cheaper digital side of filmmaking, seeing Shyamalan and Blaschke really nail that said “old-school thriller” look, not just with a rich, grainy depth to the image, but with an intention to every single shot in the film, was exhilarating.. Every camera movement, lighting change, and Dutch angle (there are a lot of them) is beautifully thought out and executed, even for such a tight, constrained thriller. I know “Film Director Does his Job” shouldn’t be breaking news, but with so many big-name filmmakers selling out to the highest bidder, and especially after Shyamalan doing so back in the day, seeing him return to his roots stronger than ever is not only great for this film alone, but also for every other filmmaker who has ever felt like they’ve lost the plot of their career. You always have it in you.
Perhaps one of the more refreshing elements of this is that Shyamalan, despite making his own changes to the narrative, doesn’t twist many things around to create that “Shyamalan” ending that he was made famous for, but got dicey somewhat quickly while he struggled to maintain the high inflicted upon viewers in The Sixth Sense (1999). Some viewers might be thrown off at how straightforward Knock at the Cabin is compared to previous works of his. I attribute much of this to working off of the original adapted screenplay by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman. That allowed the story to stand more on its own than exist solely as a Shyamalan property, hitting a balance between Funny Games (2007) and 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), particularly the latter in the big question of “Are these people full of shit? Or are they truly prophetic?” Not to mention, in the midst of its bleak tone, it allows for some very funny moments, even if the characters don’t get to be in on it like the audience is.
I love this era of Shyamalan. He’s not as concerned with taking the biggest swings or pulling the biggest punches anymore, but rather making what he wants, how he wants, and I think audiences are going to take back to that after justifiably losing trust in him for a few years. Knock at the Cabin is a wonderful example of how Shyamalan’s style and formula can work even on the most straightforward of stories, and that imbuing his own writing and directing style on existing properties, as seen here and with Old, has been instrumental in avoiding some of the overly ambitious downfalls of his previous work. By letting the strength of the narrative, as well as the strength of its impressive and surprisingly well-suited cast (not kidding when I say I initially imagined a Nicholas Braun-type for Bautista’s role, but now I can never view Leonard as anyone but Bautista), Knock at the Cabin is a knockout and represents what I believe will be Shyamalan’s best-received film with both critics and audiences since Signs (2002).
I still think they should’ve retained the original title and called it The Cabin at the End of the World. It’s a 10x better name, and this is faithful enough to have gotten away with it.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
For more information, head to the official Knock At The Cabin website.