Knock at the Cabin review: Dave Bautista says apocalypse is now – are you going to argue?

Chris Tilly
Dave Bautista as Leonard in Knock at the Cabin.

Knock at the Cabin isn’t the scariest movie M. Night Shyamalan has made, but it’s one of the most challenging; a gripping psychological drama that puts you in the place of its protagonists as they are given an impossible ultimatum.

Knock at the Cabin is “Apocalypse Horror” that follows in the footsteps of films like The Seventh Sign, End of Days, and The Reaping. Movies where the end is nigh, and judgement is fast approaching.

Though where those films told big stories on a vast canvas, Knock at the Cabin tells a much smaller and more intimate tale of a family and the strangers who one day enter their lives, with devastating consequences.

The film is adapted – by director Shyamalan and writers Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman – from novel The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay. And while changes have been made – most notably in a grim final act – the horrific central setup remains the same.

A chilling prologue

Before anyone knocks at the cabin door however, the film features a chilling prologue; one that’s frequently shot in claustrophobic close-up, and filled with foreboding, as well as some pretty blatant foreshadowing.

Little Wen (Kristen Cui) is playing in a forest while holidaying with her two Dads. Wen catches a grasshopper in a jar, tells it to relax, and assures the insect: “I’m not going to hurt you, I’m just going to learn about you for a little while.”

Then a stranger called Leonard (Dave Bautista) approaches the girl, and advises her to let the grasshoppers calm down before inspecting them, so they don’t panic, the film telling before showing in somewhat clumsy fashion.

Leonard is followed by the people he works with – Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint), and Ardiane (Abby Quinn). All of whom carry what he calls tools, but look very much like weapons.

Leonard states that they have a job to do; one that might be the most important job in the history of the world. Which freaks Wen out, understandably, and sends her running for home.

A terrifying home invasion

We then hear the titular knock. Wen’s parents – Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) – first think it’s a joke, panic when they see the size of Leonard, and order the visitors away.

But Leonard is insistent, telling them that “The four of us are here because we’re trying to save a whole bunch of people,” before adding that they don’t have a choice.

This being a horror film, it’s quickly established that their cells won’t work and the phone lines are down. Before that can sink in, the strangers enter by force, Shyamalan shooting the home invasion in close-up with an urgency that has you feeling every strike and blow.

The choice at the heart of Knock at the Door

Then it’s into the story proper, as the intruders make their proposal: “Your family must choose to willingly sacrifice one of the three of you to prevent the apocalypse,” Leonard explains.

“For every no you give us, hundreds of thousands of people are going to die,” he continues. “If you fail to choose or fail to follow through you will only live long enough to witness the end of everything.”

It’s as grim as ultimatum’s get, the four apparent horse-people of the apocalypse then outlining exactly how the world will end. Bautista delivers the message in spellbinding fashion, being careful, clear and precise with his words, but with a volcano of emotion clearly bubbling beneath the surface. While his colleagues leave you in little doubt that they mean everything they say.

The family reacts as you’d expect, with shock, anger, concern, and fear. Though most of all with defiance, presenting a united front in their refusal to take such obvious nonsense seriously.

Apocalypse soon?

The rest of the film remains in the cabin location, and consists of a tense back-and-forth between captives and captors. They argue over right and wrong, truth and lies, shared delusion, and the insanity of the situation in which they find themselves.

Intrigue is added via flashbacks to the past that suggest there might be some motive to what’s happening in the present. While a blow to Eric’s head results in concussion potentially clouding his judgement, which further complicates matters.

There’s also the television. Shyamalan used found footage to creepy effect in Signs some 20 years ago, and he takes it to the next level here, with death and destruction playing on the news via shaky-cam. That horrific imagery helps drive the narrative by seeming to support Leonard’s words, which in turn has the family both doubting themselves, and questioning their reality.

The Verdict – Is Knock at the Cabin good?

All of which makes for a tense, cleverly structured, beautifully performed stand-off where motives are questioned, allegiances switch, and the apocalypse looks like it might be now. Until the film once again flips that notion on its head. Then back again.

Knock at the Cabin has serious things to say about real-world problems, from bigotry and climate change, to echo chambers in the modern age. While it also examines more abstract notions like choice and destiny.

But it never feels preachy, with the high-concept at the heart of the film – and the threat of violence that hangs over every frame – ensuring that Knock at the Cabin is more thriller than talky drama.

Knock at the Cabin Score – 4/5

A film like Knock at the Cabin is about payoff as much as setup, and mercifully, Knock at the Cabin delivers at the death. The climax lacks the ambiguity of its source material, as well as some of the purer horror elements. But Hollywood tends to deal more in absolutes, so while the ending is different, it nevertheless goes to a very dark place, and manages to pack an equally powerful punch.

Knock at the Cabin hits cinemas this Friday (February 3), whiles you can read about the book here, and everything we know about the film here.

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