Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World made a huge splash in the horror community and beyond. The story details the plight of Andrew and Eric and their daughter Wen after a quartet of strangers approaches their remote cabin.
M. Night Shyamalan’s best films – Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) stand out as examples – achieve a rare mixture of strong storytelling, distinctive characters, a goosebumps-inducing climax and a positive message.
What happens, therefore, when a talented albeit idiosyncratic director adapts a masterful novel?
Knock at the Cabin immediately pulls the viewer into the story with the intimidating figure of Leonard (Dave Bautista), blurred and bulky, approaching Wen (Kristen Cui) as she collects grasshoppers. It’s an unsettling scene characterised by extreme close-ups of the two as they talk. Adding to the tension is Leonard periodically glancing sideways and leading the viewer (but not necessarily Wen) to wonder: Is he making sure someone doesn’t see him? Or is he waiting for someone?
Most of the film sticks to the source material, and this is where it succeeds. Each character is well cast, particularly Bautista’s Leonard, whose burly frame contrasts with his calm, “I’m sorry I have to do this” disposition. Though Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff) lose some of the distinctiveness of their literary inspiration (a forgivable offence considering the difficulty of condensing a novel to a one-hour-and-forty-minute film), both actors convey the tension, disbelief and anger of their characters.
A couple of flashbacks masterfully show the intolerance Andrew and Eric confront while casting further uncertainty onto the visitors’ intentions. One flashback, for instance, starts just after the couple comes out to Andrew’s parents. The father’s blatant disgust as he stares at Andrew is so arresting that it overwhelms whatever trivial thing the smirking mother says.
Things start to derail toward the end of the film. Several key character outcomes deviate from those in the novel, and Shyamalan gives the viewer a much different takeaway than Tremblay gives the reader.
What makes the novel so effective is its ambiguity: Are these visitors lunatics suffering from a collective delusion, or do they have a legitimate reason for the extreme request they are making of this family? Are the natural events that are unfolding in other parts of the world connected to this group, or are they merely coincidences?
Shyamalan, however, seems so focused on delivering his message that he dismisses that ambiguity. He puts his own spin on the conclusion, and the film suffers because of it. In his quest to put everything on a neat platter and spoon-feed answers to the viewer, he goes so far as to have one character announce what key characters symbolize. In one scene, it’s as if the film is saying, “See? Look! Here’s the evidence that proves the answer.”—Douglas J. Ogurek ***