Knock at the Cabin review: a tense and ambiguous thriller

Knock at the Cabin is the latest cinema offering by M. Night Shyamalan. But is it worth your time?

Dave Bautista, Abby Quinn, and Nikki Amuka-Bird in KNOCK AT THE CABIN
(Image: © Universal Pictures)

What to Watch Verdict

In Knock in the Cabin, M. Night Shyamalan keeps audiences guessing and the result is an effective, tension-filled ride.


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    A return to form for The Sixth Sense director M Night Shyamalan

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    An original twist on a familiar horror trope

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    Effectively builds tension as the story unfolds


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    Shyamalan’s ersatz mysticism unbalances the story

A family holidaying in a remote cabin in the woods finds four intimidating strangers on their doorstep. Yes, when Knock at the Cabin begins, we’re definitely on the threshold of a home invasion horror thriller. The director, however, is M Night Shyamalan so of course a twist is in store. 

Yet surprisingly, a spoiler alert is not necessary here. Unlike The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, or any of the other films that built the Shyamalan brand, Knock at the Cabin announces its biggest twist right at the start. The threatening quartet is not driven by bloodlust, malice, or greed but by the purest of motives: they’ve come to save the world.

This doesn’t make their arrival any less scary for the family in the cabin — gay couple Eric (Jonathan Groff ) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted seven-year-old daughter Wen (Kristen Cui). And the mood is pretty chilling for us, the viewers, too, from the moment the hulking figure of Dave Bautista’s Leonard, the quartet’s leading member, appears in the New Hampshire forest where Wen is collecting grasshoppers. 

When he introduces himself to the inquisitive Wen, his manner couldn’t be milder, but his sheer size makes him menacing, and when his three colleagues also turn up, each of them clutching a strange, almost medieval-looking homemade weapon, it is no wonder that the doting fathers attempt to barricade their cabin against the intruders.

The strangers, however, are implacable. Second-grade school teacher and part-time bartender Leonard, post-op nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Ariadne (Abby Quinn), a line cook in a Mexican restaurant, and their companion Redmond (Rupert Grint) are people on a mission.

A masked figure in Knock at the Cabin

A masked figure in Knock at the Cabin. (Image credit: Universal Pictures)

"The four of us are here to prevent the apocalypse", declares Leonard, going on to reveal that the family inside the cabin has been chosen to make a horrible decision. And if they fail to choose, the world will end.

Hearing this, who wouldn’t be skeptical? Nowadays, if someone is convinced the Earth is facing imminent global catastrophe they normally glue themselves to a road or a Picasso. Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish Parliament holding up a sign, not a makeshift weapon. The measures being taken by Leonard and his comrades are plainly more extreme than any so far proposed by the likes of Extinction Rebellion. They are clearly no less sincere, but is what they are saying true?

Shyamalan ratchets up the tension as the situation unfolds, introducing notes of ambiguity as the stakes rise for all the people in the cabin. The four strangers claim to have met in person for the first time that day. Each insists, however, that they have shared the same apocalyptic visions. For arch-rationalist Andrew, this suggests their conviction that the world is about to end has been forged in an online echo chamber. Eric, meanwhile, is convinced that he has had a previous encounter with one of the groups. What are we to think? 

Paul Tremblay, author of the novel, The Cabin at the End of the World, on which Knock at the Cabin is based, kept his readers guessing. Shyamalan, having rewritten Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman’s script adaptation, does the same for his film’s viewers, but he alters the book’s balance, putting his thumb on one side of the scale.

Knock at the Cabin has already been hailed in some quarters as Shyamalan’s return to form. That said, those filmgoers previously irritated by his propensity for mystical woo will probably still come away disappointed. Yet others will definitely be happy to see him nimbly sidestep pitfalls that have bedeviled some of his earlier movies. Shyamalan doesn’t only have a reputation for late-breaking plot twists. 

He’s also famous — or infamous — for making appearances in his own films that plumb depths of embarrassment unmatched even by Quentin Tarantino (the nadir came in Lady in the Water in which Shyamalan modestly cast himself as a writer whose work is destined to change the world). He does make a cameo here, but it is one that is guaranteed to raise a smile, not a grimace.

Knock in the Cabin is in cinemas from Friday, February 3. 

Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.