The Little Mermaid
- 03 Jun - 09 Jun, 2023
After spectral therapists, agriculturally inclined aliens, and homicidal house plants, it's a welcome change to be confronted with an M. Night Shyamalan film in which the most ridiculous thing is the luxurious in-house library at an Airbnb. The remote getaway in the film (4.96 rating – Wi-Fi, free parking, and end-of-the-world cultists included) is a hideaway to die for. It is, in fact, the ideal setting for Eric (Jonathan Groff), Andrew (Ben Aldridge), and Wen (Kristen Cui) to spend some family time in mother nature's embrace. At first glance, it's also an eye-rollingly tired setting for some stabby-stabby horror. But Shyamalan is never one to do things by the book, and this eschatological thriller, like its setting, has more going on than a cursory glance at its listing would suggest.
This is a tighter, simpler story than many of Shyamalan's original flights of fancy, adapted from Paul Tremblay's harrowing 2018 novel The Cabin At The End Of The World (with a script by Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, re-written by Shyamalan). It also does not waste any time. We barely have time to catch our breath before the family's arboreal paradise is shattered, an oppressive and sinister atmosphere descending after less than five minutes of screen time. Wen (Dave Bautista) is gleefully catching grasshoppers in the woods when she notices the hulking form of Leonard (Dave Bautista) trudging towards her in a crisp, short-sleeved missionary shirt and looking like the headliner for Mormon Summerslam.
He is quickly joined by companions Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint), and Adriane (Abby Quinn), each wielding a medieval-looking torture instrument, who inform the family that they must make a particularly difficult choice.
The secluded location and home invasion setup may be as old as the hills, but that's the extent to which Knock At The Cabin is willing to follow the rules. This isn't a horror film that trades on shock and gore, instead adopting a deceptively soft, almost gentle tone as it lays out the family's perilous situation. When they appear, bursts of savage violence are potent but never gruesome, relying on psychological wounds rather than splatter to make their point.
The film's primary tools are paranoia, denial, and twisted attempts at persuasion, with character and performance packing far more punch than the 9mm pistol locked out of reach in Andrew's car boot. Groff and Aldridge's mounting panic is palpable, adding to the suffocating tension that builds almost without break over the course of 100 agonising minutes. Bautista, on the other hand, is the standout, with what appears to be more lines than all of his previous screen roles combined. He perfectly counters Leonard's physical menace with a childlike tenderness that is chilling in its affable restraint – all politeness and consideration, even when staving in skulls.
Some of the source material's edges have been sanded off (the title change is a deliberate attempt to distance this adaptation), and not all of Shyamalan's choices land as intended (an M. Night cameo involving an air fryer is particularly ill-judged), but this is a brutally stressful and effective thriller that doesn't require a third-act rug-pull to leave the audience breathless.
This is Shyamalan's best film in years, a harrowing, economical thriller that will stay with you for days, and a calling card for Bautista in his best performance yet.