With the Doomsday clock closer to midnight than it’s ever been, the director has shared his timely new take on the apocalypse
The king of twists can be twisted, too. In Knock at the Cabin, the 15th film by M. Night Shyamalan, a family in a secluded holiday home is captured by a gang of four led by Leonard (Dave Bautista), a deceptively friendly-looking giant heeding a warning: an apocalypse is coming, and it can only be averted if one of the petrified family – two gay fathers (Ben Aldridge, Jonathan Groff), an Asian daughter (Kristen Cui) – agrees to be killed. Even worse, the executor must be one of the loving trio themselves. You’ve heard of Sophie’s Choice. What about Shyamalan’s Choice?
Like Funny Games with the stakes ramped up to include every living soul on the planet, Knock at the Cabin is a nasty, claustrophobic thriller that tasks viewers with hatching their own escape plan. The alleged premonition, consisting of a joint vision from four strangers who met online, seems as ludicrous as the plot of The Happening, especially as the demographic-pleasing family are convinced their kidnappers are homophobic, racist, or both. But Leonard’s cohorts willingly behead themselves one by one, while news reports indicate that years of natural disasters are unfolding within a single afternoon. Regardless of whether the end is nigh, the family might need to become a duo in order to survive.
Shyamalan, of course, is a specialist when it comes to unsettling stories. The Sixth Sense dramatised one of the most relatable fears that have grown more relevant over time (being ghosted), Old visualised the deep, dark fate that every human must face (ageing), and Signs posed a philosophical question that really struck a chord: wouldn’t it be really annoying to live with Joaquin Phoenix? While Shyamalan is famously hit (The Village) and miss (The Lady in the Water), he’s recently been on a hot streak, including his direction on Apple TV’s Servant.
When I suggest to Shyamalan that Knock at the Cabin is particularly unnerving as it appears to take place in the real world, he lights up with glee. “Wonderful!” the 52-year-old Indian-American filmmaker beams. “Whatever it is that’s supernatural, I try to ground it as much as possible. You can make Harry Potter, or you can make something very reality-based. But doing the in-between is really hard. The audience has a vocabulary, and they’re not sure what to take as grounded. You titrate the story bit by bit, so they can consume it, and then slowly they go, ‘Maybe this is real?’”
I’m speaking to Shyamalan in late January, in Ham Yard Hotel, a few days after it was reported that the Doomsday Clock is now 90 seconds to midnight. Likewise, Knock at the Cabin taps into suppressed fears that civilisation could destruct at any moment, whether from flooding, fires, war, or another pandemic. “This fictional story makes us feel uneasy because it rings true that we’re at the end of the Doomsday Clock,” he says. “But there’s a chance to stop it.”
Like Old, Knock at the Cabin is an adaptation of an existing piece of work, this time Paul Tremblay’s 2018 novel The Cabin at the End of the World. In 2019, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman’s attempt to write the film made the 2019 Black List (I tracked it down – their ending follows the book), but in 2021, Shyamalan did a page-one rewrite. It involved outlining the novel, coming up with a brand new second half (“from thereon, it was completely an original screenplay”), and then reading Desmond and Sherman’s draft for any bonus ideas.
“It was the fastest screenplay I’ve ever written,” Shyamalan recalls. “I think you can feel it when you watch it. There was a tumbling feeling of: ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen? This happens, this happens…’” At my request, Shyamalan breaks down his writing schedule, which mostly involves locking himself away in his home office in the morning. “Quietness and solitude are essential. You can stare for three hours, and that’s OK. But you can’t do anything else. Out of that purity will organically come your relationship with the characters.”
While Knock at the Cabin may sound like torture porn, Shyamalan is a reliable draw at the box office who was famously touted by a 2002 Newsweek front cover as “The Next Spielberg”. It’s ultimately a fun popcorn flick, right down to a laugh-out-loud cameo from Shyamalan himself, and there’s a warmth to the ensemble, including the so-called baddies, all shot on 35mm in close-ups by DPs Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse) and Lowell Meyer (Servant). Alongside Bautista is Nikki Amuka-Bird and Abby Quinn, both polite to a fault in how they wield their weapons, and Rupert Grint – although his role is murkier.
“Even if they’re an axe murderer chopping up a body, an actor has to find a reason to defend the character,” says Shyamalan. “As a writer, I like it being more complex. These seven people are so miscast to be the characters that they’re supposed to be in the story. They’re befuddled, and have doubts of: ‘Wait a minute, are we being manipulated here? Is this a scam?’”
‘This fictional story makes us feel uneasy because it rings true that we’re at the end of the Doomsday Clock. But there’s a chance to stop it’ – M Night Shyamalan
Shyamalan tells me he’s already writing his next film, a thriller that, according to the trades, Universal will release on April 5, 2024. Given that he did an uncredited rewrite on She’s All That, is there any chance we’ll see a 90s-style romcom from him in the future? “My youngest daughter watches them with her teenage friends. It’d be fun to write a romcom. I love incorporating comedy into my movies. But the need for a mystery is important to me, at least right now.”
There’s noticeably a pipeline of comedians like Jordan Peele and Zach Cregger entering horror filmmaking. Can’t he take his lessons from The Happening into the comedy genre? “When I did The Visit, I said we were going to do horror and comedy together. Every single person told me it wouldn’t work. But horror and comedy are vocal audience experiences. And now it’s part of the lexicon of telling a horror movie, that tongue-in-cheek-y quality.”
Whatever Shyamalan does next, it’s bound to have the Shyamalan touch, especially as it’s an original idea that he pitched to Universal last year. Even with Knock at the Cabin, a film based on a book and with two other screenwriters sharing the credit, you don’t need a sixth sense to detect who’s behind the camera.
“This was such a strangely personal movie,” Shyamalan says. “I know I adapted it, but it feels crazily personal. It’s about a gay couple, yet I feel that that’s the love story that represents me. It’s weird how art and the truth inside you, speak to each other. I could literally do a biography about my life, and it wouldn’t connect as much as this movie.”
Knock at the Cabin is out in UK cinemas on February 3