Knock on the Cabin has all the markings of a genre almost exclusively monopolised by Netflix in recent years. A familiar cast – check. A limited set – check. A taut, claustrophobic thriller with an easy elevator pitch to sell it to friends and family for word of mouth success – check. It is, in that sense, an old school streamer. Vintage titles kick things off and a neat bow closes the circle. Add to the fold a headliner as director and what’s not to like?
Fans of M. Night Shyamalan will be pleased to know that Knock on the Cabin continues the director’s ongoing return to crowd-pleasing form. A string of successes that slowly but surely put much needed space between audiences now and those who suffered Shyamalan’s fallow years. This latest win comes drawn from the pages of Paul G. Tremblay novel ‘The Cabin at the End of the World’, albeit with a wealth of deviations and an entirely new ending. The effect of such changes is to shift things rather too heavily in the direction of spoon-feeding but proves no less compelling to the uninitiated. This in no small part thanks to the heightened sensory overload of Shyamalan’s direction. A shot taken at arm’s length is the stuff of dreams in these scenes.
Marvel icon Dave Bautista is excellent as gentle giant Leonard, a teacher by trade but rerouted here as a negotiator for the future of humanity. Gentle but disquieting. Bautista nails it. Leonard one of four – alongside Nikki Amuka-Bird’s Sabrina, Abby Quinn’s Adrianne and Rupert Grint’s Redmond – brought together by nightmarish visions to avert the apocalypse. The quartet are drawn to a remote cabin in Burlington County, New Jersey. Here, adoptee fathers Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) holiday with their young daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). Seven knocks. Haven turns to hell. Two must sacrifice the third. Only by doing so can the end of all humanity be averted. And there’s the elevator pitch. Save the world or save your family? You can’t do both.
On that steam alone, the film chugs along nicely. There are red herrings, of course. A hint that Redmond may not be who he claims to be – not quite resolved to any degree of satisfaction – and whispers of a darker side to Andrew. Into the certainty of his premise, Shyamalan sows doubt too by toying none too subtly with contemporary hot topics. These including fake news and the sort of herd culpability that led to 2021’s Capitol riot. It’s never quite enough to convince that the film isn’t going exactly where you suspect but there’s grisly fun to be had in watching how it’s going to get there. For all its highfaluting ideas, Shyamalan’s script – re-written from an original by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman – leans a touch on the laboured end of nuance.
For all the niggles, it is in atmosphere and tone that Shyamalan reveals his untainted talents. An early meeting for Leonard with young Wen tingles the spine, while, later, a bathroom entrapment plays beautifully with expectation. All here is taken to the farthest extreme. Closer and closer Shyamalan’s lens presses to the sweat drenched faces of his characters, whose breathless dialogue wreaks with panicked intensity. A score by Herdís Stefánsdóttir is all but lost under the film’s roaring foley soundscape. It’s a nauseating sensory experience but wholly effective in ramping up the thrill of claustrophobia at its most intense. It’s hard not to be swept into Andrew and Eric’s hot pot of paranoia and rising panic as the conclusion races nearer.
When it comes, said conclusion is both as overplayed and undemanding as all that came before suggests it will be. Satisfying but neat. As the credits roll, audiences may well walk away debating which of their own family they would sacrifice to save the end of the world. I left wondering how much more sociologically stimulating a film Jordan Peele might have spun from Tremblay’s text.