Over the last few years, apocalypse films have lost their bang. We’ve all been through rough times, so when I see a movie trailer with airplanes falling out of the sky and giant tsunamis swallowing the earth, my first thought is, “Just get it over with, please.” But then I notice it’s a new M. Night Shyamalan thriller and I’m …intrigued. Pump the brakes on the end of times, let’s see what the writer-director does with Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel “The Cabin at the End of the World” which Stephen King called “thought-provoking and terrifying.” It starts with a simple knock on the door by Dave Bautista, sorry the “Dave’s not here, man” ploy doesn’t work, and ends with a choice; kill a member of your family to stop the end of the world or let humanity perish while you survive to roam a ravaged Earth alone.
“Knock at the Cabin” takes place at a beautiful remote Airbnb in the woods, not the kind of shack affiliated with the “Evil Dead” films, where we meet seven-year-old Wen (newcomer Kristen Cui) who’s out collecting grasshoppers. She’s the adopted daughter of Daddy Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Daddy Andrew (Ben Aldridge), as she refers to her parents, and she knows better than to talk to strangers. For some reason, she opens up to Leonard (Dave Bautista), a bulky menacing looking man who appears out of nowhere. We later find out there’s a reason soft-spoken Leonard communicates so well with children.
Leonard tells Wen, “My heart is broken” because of what he has to do, and he’s quickly joined by three associates, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint), and Ardiane (Abby Quinn), all seem to be carrying medieval weapons. “You see, the four of us have a very important job to do” explains Leonard, “In fact, it might be the most important job in the history of the world” he adds, causing pigtailed Wen to scurry back to the cabin to warn her dads.
At first, it seems like a home invasion as Leonard and company tie up Eric and Andrew, who assume the four are religious zealots targeting a queer couple. It doesn’t help when Leonard begins yapping “We are called and are united by a common vision which has now become a command we cannot ignore” and Andrew (known for his temper) thinks that Redmond looks too familiar, and not in a Ron Weasley kind of way, as someone who once assaulted him in a bar.
As the plot begins to thicken, revelations are swiftly disclosed. “The four of us are here to prevent the apocalypse” states Leonard. To do that, Eric, Andrew, and Wen must sacrifice a member of their family. One person to save all of humanity, again. Christians will relate as the bible is filled with scores of human sacrifices, but the religious aspect of the story is purposely left out. God is never mentioned, there is no prayer, and for all we know these four intruders are escaped, mental patients.
Andrew grows angrier by the minute, but Eric (who has suffered a concussion) begins to absorb the fantastic four’s warning especially after Leonard turns on the TV to show them how they have unleashed a plague on mankind by refusing to make a sacrifice. Breaking news of earthquakes causing tsunamis is broadcast with footage of people perishing under massive walls of water along the US coast. Each time Leonard asks the family if they will make a sacrifice and the answer is “No” another plague will be unleashed on humanity until time runs out and the apocalypse begins.
The film plays like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone” remaining vague with the details. All we know is that Leonard, Sabrina, Redmond, and Ardiane all had visions that brought them together, to this cabin at this time, not knowing who the occupants would be. There are flashbacks of Eric and Andrew’s life together, from the moment they met to being rejected by Andrew’s family, to the day they flew to China to adopt Wen. The interludes serve as breaks in the tension.
Written by Shyamalan along with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, the film deviates from Paul Tremblay’s novel in the final act; perhaps Night is softening as he gets older. The novel is much darker and unconcerned with establishing hope. Shyamalan softens the blow with an ending that feels bogus while most of the story’s disturbing moments happen off-camera, bloody violence minus the blood. I could understand if the filmmaker was shooting for a PG-13 rating, but as it stands, “Knock” is rated R, so why not bask in the restricted glory? For the record, this must be the softest R in rating’s history.
What the film does well, is it holds your attention. It also accomplishes its goal of placing you in Eric, Andrew, and Wen’s predicament, forcing you to contemplate what action you would take if faced with the same scenario. The performances by the cast are good with Bautista showing us a different side that hopefully will lead to more dramatic roles. I’m also a big fan of Nikki Amuka-Bird who appeared in Shyamalan’s “Old” in 2021. She is great here, but we don’t get enough of her. The possibilities of what she could have done with the role of Sabrina are endless. I would have made her the leader of the foursome. Amuka-Bird had a great cameo in one of the most underrated films of last year “The Outfit” where she played gangster La Fontaine, once again leaving the audience wanting more.
“Knock at the Cabin” is a meat-and-potatoes thriller. It lays out what it is from the beginning and never deviates with plot twists as it stays on course. Stark visuals, characters that you care about, and a story that Rod Serling would embrace are more than enough to keep you entertained. A little hope never hurt anyone.
Now showing in theaters