Knock At The Cabin: Sit or Skip
(A somewhat sane semi cohesive early review)
By Steph Prizhitomsky
January 30th, 2023, I attended the world premiere of Knock at the Cabin and spent a two hour bus ride home compiling my many thoughts into a semi sane semi organized not so comprehensive list which has been edited for clarity. It goes a little something like this:
So. A family of three takes a vacation to a cabin in the woods in Pennsylvania (first mistake) only to be the victims of a terrifying home invasion…or maybe not. It may or may not concern the fate of the world.
Here’s what worked and what didn’t work in the latest M Night Shyamalan film.
But first, a quick rundown of our players and the play:
There’s the family: Eric and Andrew played by Jonathon Groff and Ben Aldridge respectively, and their daughter Wen played by Kristen Cui.
The disruptors to their idyllic vacation are fronted by Dave Bautista’s Leonard, a second grade teacher, the nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adriane (Abby Quinn) a chef, and Redmond (Rupert Grint), the resident asshole. These are the characters who come to take the family hostage but not to hurt them. They have an impossible proposition: one of the family must be sacrificed by the other two in order to prevent the end of the world.
Their reasoning? Shared visions…
The family is not impressed until the world actually starts ending, and they must actually make the choice of which one of them is to die.
This movie is visually stunning which is how you immediately know it was not filmed in Pennsylvania. It does a fantastic job of immersing you into this secluded location with no hope of anyone passing by to happen upon the plight of Andrew, Eric, and Wen.
The cabin itself is architecturally gorgeous, and the landscape is almost too beautiful, giving it a very otherworldly feel.
The acting was phenomenal from the entire cast with standout performances from Dave Bautista, Ben Aldridge, and of course Kristen Cui who knocked it out of the park with her portrayal of the little girl Wen.
In particular, the first interaction between Wen and Dave Bautista’s character Leonard was a fantastic horror film opening by subverting expectations of the rules of horror. Leonard is a large, looming figure over tiny Wen, telling her he wants to be her friend and isn’t going to hurt her, which in a horror movie is just code for he is definitely going to hurt her. Except he doesn’t.
He genuinely feels terrible guilt about what’s about to happen, knowing that she very well may be the sacrifice. The entire scene is shot with extreme closeups on the actors’ faces and a blurred background of the sprawling woods behind them keeping you tense, up close, and personal, as the real danger approaches in the form of (more) strangers with weapons. It’s a perfect scene.
Visually, I have no qualms.
A particular moment that stuck out to me was the sunset lighting that enveloped the setting towards the end of their first day being held hostage. A beautiful moment that gave the characters a strange pocket of peace before delving into the night, arguably the worst time of day for a horror movie character...except they skipped right over the night and cut to the next day.
And in some aspects I found that strangely refreshing. I can get behind the vision that it doesn’t need to be night for the premise to be scary: the real horror lies during the day, but I would’ve appreciated a bit of explanation as to the disregarded sleeping arrangement of this now overcrowded cabin after the nice armed hostagees told the tied up in chairs hostages to sleep, and more importantly, why there wasn’t an escape attempt then. Maybe a fight, sleep or the lack of it, something, anything. It left much to be wanted.
And that skipping over what could’ve been an important moment of reflection for the film’s most compelling characters (spoiler alert it’s not Eric, Andrew, or Wen) was the first sign of this film’s crucial shortcomings which brings me to…
Subtlety and the grave lack of it.
Who are we fighting anyway? Let’s take a look at our list of characters again.
Outside of our protagonists Wen, Andrew, and Eric, we have a nurturing nurse, a kind cook, a guiding second grade teacher, and a not so nice homophobic Rupert Grint.
Minus Rupert Grint, these characters are meant to represent the good parts of humanity, which gets rather in your face with the near the end montage of each character and what they represent. Maybe we’re fighting subtlety.
So the people carrying out the bad deed are good people too.
This might have worked as an intriguing concept except for that question again. Who the hell are we fighting? Well, it’s not the four intruder characters, they continually mention how they’re on the same side as the protagonists, and because of the outcome of the film, they’re actually right about that. And we don’t have some evil Darth Vader overlord causing the apocalypse, so we get the worst possible option. We’re fighting ideas.
And what are these ideas exactly?
The folly of humanity and the sacrifice of innocence to save it…sort of.
Something the film fails to address directly and quite intentionally is the reason Eric, Andrew, and Wen are the ones chosen to pick a sacrifice of one of them.
An early plot point is the intruders clarifying they had no idea it would be the three of them at the cabin. They explained very clearly they were not targeting them in a homophobic attack, despite how it looks with Rupert Grint’s history of attacking Andrew, but that’s only a red herring. Because he’s called Redmond. Red Herring. Haha.
Their going theory by the end of the film is that Eric and Andrew’s love was so pure as a family that only their sacrifice of innocent goodness could save humanity from ending up in flames, plague, and ashes. The film taps into some religious ideas when it comes to the actual apocalypsing, but it doesn’t delve too far into it.
Even before the trio are fully convinced of the apocalypse being real, Andrew refused to choose a sacrifice even if it would cause the end of humanity, accepting him and his family being doomed to walk the Earth alone if they refuse to choose (this is just one of those random extra rules detailed by Leonard and co. from their visions that I have no idea how it could be conveyed in that format and did they also just get a memo with a list of no no’s? Anyway-).
Andrew remarks that humanity isn’t worth saving especially if it tears apart his family, and that is why Leonard, Adriane, Sabrina, and Redmond (for some reason) are sent to them to show them the different aspects of humanity dying and why each remarks that sentence a part of humanity has been judged upon them happily going to their death.
There’s just something so off and strange about people who the story goes out of the way to tell us is good forcing more people who the story goes out of the way to tell us is good to see the good in humanity, when the second batch of good characters are already pretty set in life minus a kind of out of place subplot on homophobia. In the grand scheme of things, unimportant.
This also doesn’t allow any kind of depth for the intruders who are all essentially the same character split into three (minus Redmond) that act the same and think the same and have the same motivation without any kind of variation or doubt in a situation that I guarantee would foster at least a little bit of apprehension even if a pseudo Mother Theresa came knocking at the door with visions ready to get bludgeoned to death.
Every character of the intruders should’ve been morally questionable like Redmond, minus perhaps Leonard. Leonard’s death was impactful because of the dichotomy of his actions and his appearance versus his nature and how he went so willingly. Redmond’s death worked well because he was an unlikeable flawed character for his very short screentime and went to his death angrily with haunting last words.
Then the movie kind of copped out for Adriane and Sabrina’s characters, first of all, by the cheap explanation that should be put in the textbook of how not to show not tell that they are most definitely good people, have kids to go home to, etc. etc. That may have worked for one of the characters, but not all three.
This is a Pandora’s Box story of the apocalypse. These could’ve been objectively bad people doing a bad thing but for a reason they believed is good. What’s the one good thing about each bad person that they find in themselves committing something “for the greater good” to say all of humanity no less, and please don’t spell it out in a montage for the audience to see.
The characters should have had more doubts, more fight when it comes to dying, otherwise they come off as manipulative, with manufactured emotion, and not quite like people. They need agency and more than a one note story.
The characters should have had a comradery in them as a strange sort of found family despite them all being terrible people. The movie could’ve dove deeper into how the burden of knowledge of the end of the world and thinking they’re crazy is such a terrible thing. They could’ve found each other in a hopeless situation not just the day of. Therefore the pain they felt at having to watch each of them die would’ve been more impactful.
This could’ve been established with a scene in the night when the trio are sleeping or when they think the trio are sleeping. Just a scene where they talk and reflect and all that. It would also make them proving they’re good people to the trio all the more heartbreaking because here are four not so good people in charge of proving their morality and convincing three good people to kill one of their family. This would’ve been a perfect opportunity for growth as all the while they’re doing all this, they obviously wouldn’t have the utmost confidence in their own morality considering the situation and which side of the hostage sitch they’re on.
Their found family of four could be mirrored with the trio’s found family since Wen is adopted and an adopted family in a queer couple is still frowned upon in our glorious, wonderful society which was literally outlined in the opening scene where Wen explained she has two dads and the story she tells Leonard of how her guidance counselor treats her because of this.
If you want to create a complex narrative of having to decide whether humanity is worth saving or not when faced with the impossible decision of sacrificing your family, make the characters that unload that burden of knowledge equally complex, untrustworthy, but ultimately good because at the end of the day, they were right. This could’ve been their one last good deed in life. The world really was going to end, and they saved it.
That being said…
The Apocalypse (It’s A Metaphor Actually).
The absolute worst thing a story like this could do is confirm the apocalypse is real.
You have the crazy convenient advantage of being in a secluded location with no connection to the outside world: no phones, no people. All accounts of what is happening are from a biased source that is actively trying to manipulate you. Only the tv can possibly give a glimpse into what is happening out in the real world, and as remarked upon in the movie, that could easily be a part of the intruders’ plot, synced up, prerecorded, and planned.
You could spend the entire film going back and forth and back and forth with this tumultuous emotional conflict of saving the world versus saving your family and never find out if the world was actually in danger, upping the stakes all the more on the side of protecting the family, their number one goal from the start.
Especially so because of how specific some of the details are of what the intruders know about the end of the world and how all the rules seem almost too convenient. What do they know? What aren’t they telling you? What could they be making up? Why would they make it up and die for it?
Less is more when it comes to such a loose concept where the actual cause of the apocalypse isn’t even bothered to get detailed, and you get only vague but terrifying proof of the consequence of not making this impossible decision. The protagonists don’t know why this is happening and neither do the audience, so how could they be judged for refusing to make that choice?
And when they do finally make it, and they murder a member of their own family, you could choose to keep that possibility hanging that it was all for nothing, that all these people were killed for a delusion and leave the audience with an uneasiness that would rival the end scene of Inception, and what do you do, you just flat out tell the audience the apocalypse was real?
Why? Why would you do that?
This is a genuine question; can someone please get in contact with M Night Shyamalan?
What does this tell us as an audience? You’ve put the blame solidly on two gay guys just going to go on vacation for the death of thousands.
What message is the film trying to convey?
Kill your loved ones just in case the crazy people who broke into your house actually did have visions of the end of the world?
This is an open ended question so feel free to pause and think as I take a break to seethe and fume.
Here are some better ways of going about the ending:
-Wen is killed on accident by one of the intruders growing tired and terrified of the trio refusing to choose and the impending end of the world. The end of the world seems to settle for now, but at what cost?
-All of the intruders die by sacrifice, and the family sticks together for an uncertain future.
-Back to Wen again. There was genuinely a moment where I thought she was going to jump out of the treehouse and die. From the king of plot twists, it would’ve hurt, but it would’ve been a real shock. The world is subsequently saved.
-All three of the family die, and the apocalypse still happens, leaving Leonard, the original nice guy, alone to wander the Earth with the consequences.
-Wen is killed as the sacrifice, and the apocalypse doesn’t happen. They were manipulated, and Eric and Andrew are left to deal with the fallout.
Back to Wen (again).
Wen had to die. Seriously.
You cannot establish an innocent child character in a horror movie without reason. The moment they laid out the dilemma of the film, it was obvious Wen had to die. Or at the very least play a greater part in the story.
As the movie is, Wen did nothing except sort of move along the escape attempt which was essentially useless by the end because they ended up killing Eric anyway. Another potential reason for her character was emotional baggage to motivate Eric and Andrew to comply with the group’s will, but that doesn’t really work either because of The Vampire Diaries problem (yes I’m comparing this to the Vampire Diaries sorry M Night). The Vampire Diaries has a character called Jeremy who is the main character Elena’s little brother and does literally nothing for the plot except to serve as someone for Elena to care about when threatened by villains in the story, except that isn’t necessary because Elena already has her group of friends who she’s much closer with and actually serve to the greater story as active participants.
The same goes for Eric and Andrew in this situation. One of the main tensions of the film is that they would have to choose to kill one of the three of them, and while it was unlikely, they would actively choose for it to be Wen, the helpless child, it was still a possibility, and that was scary.
By the end though, Wen is just sent to wait off set on a different sound stage by the coffee machine and photocopier, as the adults act out that one scene from season one of Merlin (is this too niche?) Their emotional baggage is each other, and the film wouldn’t really change much if Wen weren’t in it.
I like Wen a lot more than I like Jeremy from The Vampire Diaries, but the way the film was marketed, I really thought she’d be doing something and not just dying for the sake of the narrative too although that would’ve been closer to what felt like the intended vision of the end of the innocence to save the many.
Instead the meaning falls closer to the ‘what would you sacrifice for a little more time’ narrative. Which is what I thought this film decided on firmly once the third act rolled around, but then it so aggressively didn’t follow through with it. Like it’s trying to spite me.
The trio found out far too late that the end of the world was real to really pack an emotional punch for Eric’s death. The scenes at the end with Andrew and Wen in the diner hearing about all the deaths that were essentially their fault doesn’t really work because it wouldn’t have made sense for them to have believed the four, and while they would of course feel guilt, that guilt would’ve been much more impactful if they spent more time knowing they were causing the end of the world and taking longer to decide who should die.
I like that all of the four had already left the equation by the time they actually realized it was going to happen, so their actual decision making had to be on their own free from bias, but because of the stupid rule that they’d only have minutes before all the world ended, they had to rush the decision, which was obvious anyway because poor Eric got a concussion which makes him a goner according to horror movie rules.
I would’ve loved more of a conversation or even a fight to decide who should be sacrificed instead of making it obvious that it’s Eric, even if he’s already emotionally decided. And once again Wen deserves more of an active role in the movie, especially in this moment.
Justice for Wen.
An actual physical pause.
Let’s talk about the book for a second. This film is based on a book called The Cabin At The End of the World.
This segment is titled: Now I’m Mad and in parenthesis: The Book.
Now I'm Mad (The Book).
After completing a mildly thorough review of the plot points of the movie, without any knowledge of the book, I assumed the plot was taken directly from the book, and the film did a pretty good job of handling the material it was given, with the story flaws being directly from the book. That was how I was going to wrap it up.
However. I was wrong. I was so wrong.
The movie’s screenplay diverges so far from the book to the point that it entirely changes the ending and outcome of multiple characters as well as the fate of the entire world.
Let’s talk about the major changes.
Wen dies, and I was right. Wen’s entire purpose in the story is to die, and in the book, her accidental death serves to show the characters whatever higher being is conducting the apocalypse doesn’t find her death and therefore the death of innocence enough to stop the apocalypse.
It would only be satisfied if one of the three in the family killed their chosen sacrifice. Therefore, Eric and Andrew (who are still questioning if the apocalypse is real which is the best way of going about this like I said), decide not to let either one of them die to complete the sacrifice, not believing that it’s worth it to appease whatever higher being is in charge that doesn’t care about the death of Wen, arguably the most innocent character, at the cost of losing each other and ending up alone.
This is a fantastic ending. M Night Shyamalan, I mean this so nicely, so respectfully, but why on God’s green Earth, what possible reason would you have, what the bleeding, bloody tonsilitis compelled you to change it?
Seriously, someone please get in contact with him and let me know. I would do it myself, but the last time I was in the vicinity of M Night Shyamalan was the Servant Season 4 Premiere afterparty where I just awkwardly stood next to him while my friend talked about Stuart Little. Getting off topic.
In terms of the four intruders, their fates change paths around the point of Adriane’s sacrifice. In the film, she makes a plea for the trio to pick who is to be killed, so she doesn’t have to die, she talks about her son, they refuse, and she is killed.
In the book, the scuffle with the gun ensues much sooner, and Adriane is killed by Andrew. In the subsequent fight between Andrew and Leonard over the gun, Wen is killed in the crossfire.
Sabrina is the one to kill Leonard after he delivers the news Wen’s death was not enough, losing faith in her task upon this tragedy. How could it possibly not be enough? It’s going to take a complex character to find out.
Sabrina then leads Eric and Andrew along with Wen’s body to Redmond’s car, so they can make their escape, but instead of going with them, in a strange turn of events, she tells them there’s still time to prevent the apocalypse if they follow through with the sacrifice before killing herself leaving Eric and Andrew alone with the fallout.
And then they decide not to. They don’t know if they’re going to end up wandering the Earth just the two of them, but they’ve already lost Wen, and it wasn’t enough, and they still don’t know if it’s all real anyway.
This establishes exactly what was lacking in the four intruders in the film: agency, comradery, doubt, guilt to the point of suicide, and an ultimately unbreakable cultish unwavering faith till the end.
Paul Tremblay. Shoutout to you.
So. Final consensus:
Despite how hard I was on the story, it isn’t devoid of meaning or emotional value. It makes you think. Ten pages of thinking to be exact, so it must be doing something right. It’s a good, beautifully shot, very well acted film that you can sit back and enjoy and get immersed if you suspend your disbelief, and hey, what else are movies for?