This article includes minor spoilers for “Knock at the Cabin.”
Horror and thriller movies often get an unfairly bad rap for the characters making terrible decisions or the story being totally unbelievable. Sometimes that is true, but much more often, that doesn’t align with the many great scary movies that exist.
“Knock at the Cabin,” however, works very hard to make that complaint as true as it ever could be — and throughout its 100-minute runtime.
It would be hyperbolic to suggest that the film’s director and co-writer, M. Night Shyamalan, as successful and beloved as he seems to be, is a major culprit in keeping horror as maligned as ever. But let’s just say he hasn’t done a whole lot to help prove the notion wrong.
For evidence, see “Old,” “Glass,” “Split,” “The Happening,” “Lady in the Water,” “The Village” or “Unbreakable.” He’s got a track record.
Like all Shyamalan films, the tension in “Knock at the Cabin,” co-written by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman (and adapted from Paul Tremblay’s novel “The Cabin at the End of the World”), begins with its coyly interesting though very recognizable premise. A couple of intimidating strangers (led by Dave Bautista’s weapon-toting schoolteacher) darken the doorstep of a happy family trying in vain to enjoy their vacation.
One question already comes to mind here: Do people still vacay in the woods despite the myriad horror movies — like, ahem, “Cabin in the Woods” — that don’t make it seem very chill?
But let’s move on.
After getting in good with the happy family’s adorable daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), by helping her collect a few grasshoppers outside, Leonard (Bautista), as we quickly learn, has a seemingly sinister ulterior motive.
He wants to be welcomed inside the cabin she’s staying at with her dads (Ben Aldridge and Jonathan Groff), so that he, along with three other frightening people (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint) can get one of them to sacrifice their life in order to save the world.
But wait, Leonard and his crew’s attempt to persuade these innocent fathers is by breaking into their home with old-timey weapons (something resembling what is seen in literally any Edgar Allan Poe screen adaptation) and brutalizing them. They’re good people with good intentions, though, they promise. They don’t want to hurt them.
So, why not talk to this family rationally so they don’t respond with similar brute force, as they do out of justifiable fear? How could the intruders be surprised that this family would prefer to actually stay alive?
And why would the trespassers begin killing each other when their captives won’t comply with their absurd demand? Why would anyone who says they’re trying to save humankind resort to murder? That’s the opposite of any salvation.
This is never explained, and if there is some kind of allegory on violence that is supposed to be going on in “Knock at the Cabin,” the movie and its story are certainly not smart enough for it to come to fruition.
Are these people part of a cult or just your run-of-the-mill deadly maniacs like in the far superior home invasion horror “The Strangers”?
Leonard’s group has to be at least a little bit insane to believe that they’re living inside an apocalypse when the only proof they offer is the TV news of a plague, unexplained plane crashes and tsunamis — all unfortunate things that already existed in this sad world.
Of course, Andrew and Eric (Aldridge and Groff, respectively) suspect this is the case and just want to be free of them.
So the invaders have a tough time convincing any of their hostages to off themselves. Probably because it all sounds less urgent when you’re roped to a chair with your partner as four psychopaths yell at and threaten you.
Shyamalan and his cohorts try to lure the audience into thinking we’re watching a home invasion horror with a bunch of lunatics when the twist — no spoilers, but it’s Shyamalan, so you know there is one — is that it’s much more…biblical?
Honestly, “Knock at the Cabin” would have been better off as a soulless home invasion offering.
Jordan Peele’s “Nope,” despite its many faults, did at least a more interesting job of building, marginally speaking, images and themes that are spiritual in nature, though without follow-through. “Knock at the Cabin” urges both its audience and its protagonists to believe that humanity has a higher purpose and that violence is the way to achieve it.
Now, I don’t know a lot about the Book of Revelation, but I am pretty well-versed in what makes sense. I must ask the same question here as Andrew and Eric repeatedly do: Why them?
This is actually answered in the film, but it’s so inane that you really do start to wonder whether anyone else actually exists inside the world Shyamalan, Desmond and Sherman create here. Because this family really is just your average folks who made a big mistake leaving the city for some fresh air at this particular moment in time.
Still, the filmmakers try to supplement that flimsy response by leaning into the fundamental horrors of queer existence through flashbacks of the couple: a homophobic assault at a bar, with their prejudiced parents and the biased barriers in the adoption process. And, as off-subject as ever and an exasperatingly unchallenged revelation, Andrew had a temper issue.
These scenes all seem like they’re from completely unrelated movies. They don’t inform the present story, and when accusations of bigotry do enter the current narrative, they sound totally out of place. Despite anything they’ve actually said, the intruders are ultimately sacrificing themselves, not targeting this family.
The couple’s backstory just seemed like an excessive way to get audiences to empathize with the characters, when the fact that they are just minding their own business when their personal space is attacked already does that trick just fine. Of course we’re rooting for them.
That is until Andrew and Eric also start acting in ways that do not match any actual human response, out of absolutely nowhere. “Knock at the Cabin” doesn’t make a case about either the believers (the trespassers) or the ones who apparently need to believe (Wen, Andrew and Eric — and/or maybe the audience?).
So the idea that any disbeliever, like these protagonists, would be converted by the end of the movie by sheer intimidation and no real provocation is maddening. Their most imminent danger is in human form and weakening by the minute.
“Knock at the Cabin” doesn’t give Andrew and Eric’s story any realistic trajectory, instead raising unanswered questions about the couple’s actual relationship with violence and even each other.
What are these 100 minutes actually about? By the end of it, who the infringers are becomes exhaustingly less critical. Who is anyone in this movie? Ultimately, no one acts in a way that is recognizable, which dulls the story and vanquishes any tension that was once there. And with that, whatever point the film was trying to make.