Director – M. Night Shyamalan, Screenplay – Steve Desmond, Michael Sherman & M. Night Shyamalan, Based on the Novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Producers – Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan & M. Night Shyamalan, Photography – Jarin Blaschke & Lowell A. Meyer, Music – Herdis Stefansdottir, Visual Effects – Cadence (Supervisor – Craig Crawford) & Fuse (Supervisor – Tommy Tran), Special Effects Supervisor – Patrick “Squares” White, Makeup Effects – Designs to Deceive (Designer – Joshua Turi), Production Design – Naaman Marshall. Production Company – Blinding Edge Pictures/Filmnation Features/Wishmore Entertainment.
Dave Bautista (Leonard Brocht), Jonathan Groff (Eric Brooks), Ben Aldridge (Andrew), Kristen Cui (Wen), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Sabrina Gittins), Abby Quinn (Adriane), Rupert Grint (Rory ‘Redmond’ O’Bannon)
Wen, the adopted daughter of her two fathers Eric and Andrew, is collecting grasshoppers outside their cabin in the woods in rural Pennsylvania when she is approached by the friendly-seeming stranger Leonard. As his three friends appear, she feels uncomfortable and runs inside. Leonard and friends force their way into the cabin and make Eric, Andrew and Wen prisoners. They tell how they have all been brought together by a shared vision and have come to ask the three to choose to sacrifice one of themselves to prevent the end of the world. If they do not chose the sacrifice, there will be unimaginable disaster. Eric and Andrew regard this as crazy. As the predestined times arrive, each of group are killed by the others, Leonard switches on the tv to show that each death has unleashed a wave of disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, plague, planes falling from the sky –and presses the three of them to make their choice.
M. Night Shyamalan became a hot new talent with the sleeper hit of his third film The Sixth Sense (1999), which came with one of the all-time great twist endings. People were excited about Shyamalan’s promise through his next films Unbreakable (2000) and Signs (2002), although the big Shyamalan conceptual mystery was starting to be regarded as a damp squib by the time of The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water (2006) and people began to switch off him. Shyamalan’s next few films, The Happening (2008), The Last Airbender (2010) and After Earth (2013), suffered some terrible reviews.
Shyamalan seemed to find redemption by teaming up with Blumhouse and working on their medium-sized budgets to make The Visit (2015) and Split (2017), which gained him the best notices in a decade, although that goodwill faltered with the Split sequel Glass (2019), nevertheless was still positive by the time of Old (2021) and Knock at the Cabin. Shyamalan also makes acting appearances in most of his films – he can be seen here as the host of a cooking show on the tv.
With his last couple of films, Old and here, Shyamalan has left original screenplays and chosen to adapt material from other writers. In this case, he adapts The Cabin at the End of the World (2018), a novel by horror writer Paul G. Tremblay. The book had won both the Bram Stoker and the Locus Horror awards on publication.
The film holds your attention from the opening scene where Dave Bautista approaches young Kristen Cui as she plays outside the cabin collecting grasshoppers and sits asking her questions. The scene lurks with a sense of unease – there is all the Stranger Danger that children have drilled into them at the same time as Bautista has a disarmingly friendly manner, while his questions and answers hover with an ambiguity. Within the space of a scene, this abruptly turns into a Home Invasion with Bautista and his friends forcing their way into the cabin and making the others prisoner and proposing their wild scheme. Moreover, seeing it delivered in the friendly manner of Dave Bautista at the same time as he is fussing about concerned about their discomfort, even throwing up after battering in someone’s head, only increases the dissonance. If it is a film about members of a crazed doomsday Cult breaking in, Bautista makes them seem awfully kind and caring crazies.
The film has such an off-the-wall premise and yet Shyamalan’s playing out of it is never less than with utter conviction. The writing is tight. And Shyamalan’s direction is sharp and on the ball as he wavers with a Psychological Ambiguity as the imprisoned try to come to terms with whether they are dealing with crazed doomsday cultists or an elaborate scam.
Eventually the film settles for falling into a certain genre of films that have emerged ever since Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996) – that sometimes the beliefs that individuals or crazy religious cults have about the imminent end of the world prove to be right after all. We’ve seen these play out in films such as Servants of Twilight (1991), Frailty (2001), Believers (2007), End of the Line (2007), The Final Storm (2010), Take Shelter (2011) and The Invitation (2015). To this extent, Knock at the Cabin proceeds towards its ending with no particularly unique variations on the formula, except perhaps offering the possibility that the sacrifice can avert the disaster.