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Euronews Culture's Film of the Week: 'Knock at the Cabin'

M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin
M. Night Shyamalan's Knock at the Cabin Copyright Universal Pictures
Copyright Universal Pictures
By David Mouriquand
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As any horror fan and discerning cinephile will tell you, nothing good ever happens in a remote cabin in the woods...

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**SPOILER-FREE REVIEW**

“Are you willing to make a sacrifice?”

As any horror fan and discerning cinephile will tell you, nothing good ever happens in a remote cabin in the woods.

And one family is about to pay for their lack of moviegoing. Specifically not having seen the final act of Drew Goddard’s Cabin in the Woods

Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) have decided to get away from it all by heading to a woodland retreat.

Wen heads outside to collect some grasshoppers in a glass jar.

“I'm not going to hurt you – I’m just going to learn about you for a while,” she tells one. So too will Shyamalan’s intruders, who set up their human specimens in a huis-clos for them to be interrogated and observed for a wee while.

Indeed, the family's holiday bliss is cut short when four affable but intimidating strangers, led by bespectacled Hulk Leonard (Dave Bautista), decide to show up and ask for a moment of their time. They announce that the couple must be tasked with something Leonard describes as “maybe the most important job in the history of the world": they must make an impossible sacrifice in order to prevent the end of the world.

Universal Pictures
Abby Quinn, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Dave Bautista and Rupert Grint as the visitors in Knock at the CabinUniversal Pictures

Being an M. Night Shyamalan film, you can guess that what follows isn’t your average home invasion thriller. 

Adapted from Paul Tremblay’s best-selling 2018 horror novel ‘A Cabin at the End of the World’, Knock at the Door is something of a return to form for the hit-or-miss director behind The Sixth Sense (hit), Unbreakable (major hit), Happening (massive miss) and last year's Old (miss).

It feels like an economical hybrid of The Strangers, Killing of a Sacred Deer and yes, the pretty much the final act of Cabin in the Woods. However, what Knock at the Door lacks in scares, knotty morality experiments and more scares that made those aforementioned titles so damn good, it makes up with sustained tension and a two-pronged question: Are these delusional Jehovah’s Witnesses from hell targeting the couple for being gay, and if not and they are for real, what would you do if faced with the same imposed cosmic burden?

Like the audience, Eric and Andrew are skeptical. The more the runtime passes, however, the more the film reveals itself less as a tantalizing enigma to solve and more a deceptive exploration of faith and humanity, akin to what Richard Matheson explores in his The Box -adapted novella ‘Button, Button'.

The cast’s efforts help nurture the themes, with Nikki Amuka-Bird, Rupert Grint and Abby Quinn bringing the goods and constantly making you question the apparent doomsday cult’s motives, as none of them play to the stereotypes usually associated with their roles. Bautista shines brightest, undercutting Leonard’s physical menace with a polite tenderness that becomes more and more chilling. It’s his strongest performance to date.

Another apocalyptic feather in the film’s hat is the execution. Shyamalan is great behind a camera (even if his overreliance on close-ups tends to grate after a while) and knows how to destabilise his audience. He sidelines the shock and splatter gore you might expect from such a genre film and instead leans into the gentleness of the intruders’ manners. This makes the (minor) bursts of violence all the more potent. Buttressed by the cinematography of Robert Eggers-regular Jarin Blaschke, and the stylish package works its magic.

Universal Pictures
Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui in Knock at the CabinUniversal Pictures

The main snag – because there definitely is one – is that Shyamalan, once again, can’t help but get in his own way. 

Putting aside his misjudged cameo, the flashback sequences are completely useless and dilute the claustrophobia of the cabin setting. Yes, one of these cutaways does give some context as to why Eric and Andrew fear that the uninvited guests could be replicating the aggression that they have experienced as gay men in a prejudiced society, but more ambiguity could have worked wonders. 

Which brings us to the film’s most glaring bum note.

If four people show up talking about the apocalypse, the Christian scripture parallel feels pretty obvious – or on-the-nose, if you’re feeling less charitable. 

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Then why feel the need to overexplain with some clunky lines of dialogue that make one character feel less like a protagonist towards the end of the movie and more the spell-it-out mouthpiece for a director who genuinely seems to believe that his audience are idiots who will gasp at anything? Resorting to literalness is the enemy of show-don’t-tell, and Shyamalan singularly fails in this respect. 

The oft-maligned director is to be applauded for deviating from his twist schtick and not relying on a major plot revelation to carry Knock at the Cabin. But his tense, Twilight Zone morality play could have been elevated quite significantly had he not re-written the script by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, and instead trusted the audience to understand where this taut thriller was headed. 

So, a return to form though it may be, Knock at the Cabin can't help but feel like an apocalypse that falls a little short.

Knock at the Cabin is out in theatres now.

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