Knock at the Cabin is M Night Shyamalan firmly back in business. Some of the Sixth Sense maestro’s craftiest original skills – and not the wacky indulgences of Old (2021) – come back to the fore here: from a premise of purest hokum, he wrings out an impressive amount of sweat. This is his best film for quite some time, yet still, very recognisably, one of his.
Adapting Paul Tremblay’s 2018 horror novel The Cabin at the End of the World, Shyamalan has preserved the concept but tweaked the outcomes in his inimitable way. The world is at a tipping point: apocalypse looms. Or does it? For the couple played by Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge, on holiday with their daughter Wen (Kristen Cui) in one of those sumptuous cabin retreats near a woodland lake, it’s all about deciding what to believe.
A quartet of strangers have barged in with bizarre ritual weapons, threatening doomsday. Their leader is Leonard, a teacher played with pained gravitas by Dave Bautista; the others are Nikki Amuka-Bird’s sorrowful nurse Sabrina, a manic young mother called Adriane (Abby Quinn), and a scowling loner, Redmond (Rupert Grint), who definitely inspires the least confidence.
Eric (Groff, quite touching) and Andrew (a furious, riveting Aldridge) instantly assume they’ve been targeted for bigoted reasons as a same-sex couple, but this is happenstance. The invading foursome come, they say, with no hatred in mind, only a desire to save the rest of humanity. And this is going to take… a sacrifice.
That’s the most you’d ideally want to know, though the latest trailers spill more – too much. The daft twists we’d come to dread in Shyamalan’s work – the ones which derailed whole stories, and sent you out feeling cheated – are replaced by testing ambiguities along the way, which sculpt and goose the conflict.
As the ante ups, what possible faith can these zealots impart to their hostages? Eric, who’s concussed, and less of a militant rationalist than Andrew anyway, feels at all times like the more susceptible target. Escape attempts are handled with the suspense you only get from perfect editing; rather than leaning in on gore, the bursts of violence are elegantly finessed through suggestion and sound. The camera always seems to be in exactly the right place.
I kept expecting Knock at the Cabin to trip up and run out of steam: in a film featuring televised tsunamis and synchronised plane disasters, the risks of deflation are enormous. Given the scale of these calamities, it’s a rather remote, mediated apocalypse Shyamalan asks us to behold. You could argue his film doesn’t add up to that much.
Still, in a beady sort of way, he gets us to wonder what doomscrolling would look like if actual doom were in the offing, and how we’d begin to tell the difference. Clever without being over-clever, it’s also earnest and affecting, and surprisingly non-silly as an exercise – like a taut instalment of M Night Shyamalan Presents that finally dredges up his mojo.
15 cert, 100 min. In cinemas from Friday February 3