Astonish us! That seems to be the demand we make on India-born filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan every time he unleashes a new horrorfest. We want that "Sixth Sense" twist again. The twist comes with all the suspense trimmings in "Knock at the Cabin," only in theaters since there's no place like the dark to gather audiences and fry their nerves to a frazzle.
Will this be the movie to finally knock "Avatar: The Way of Water" off the top of the box-office charts? Don't bet against it.
"Knock at the Cabin," directed and co-written by Shyamalan, is an adaptation of the 2018 novel "The Cabin at the End of the World" by Paul Tremblay. Don't grab the book to figure out the ending since Shyamalan modified it to suit his own brand of terror, which means creating an atmosphere of compelling claustrophobia that holds you in its grip.
The big twist this time comes at the start. A gay couple, Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), are enjoying a weekend getaway at a remote lakeside cabin in the Pennsylvania woods with their 8-year-old daughter Wen (the supremely adorable Kristen Cui). Then a knock comes at the cabin door.
Right away we're thinking home invasion since a quartet of stranger-dangers, led by the hulking Leonard (Dave Bautista), is carrying scary homemade weapons. Will it be robbery, kidnapping, even murder? Or are they homophobes who don't approve of gay adoption?
I'll never tell, though I will say that Leonard and his pals, Redmond (Rupert Grint), Adriane (Abby Quinn) and Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), are on a mission to save the world from apocalypse. And to do it they need this family to voluntarily sacrifice one of its members.
Not gonna happen is the general response. But the TV is alive with images of jets falling out of the sky, not to mention tidal waves and plague. Plus the invaders seem sympathetic to the family's plight. Leonard may look like a human battering ram, but Bautista -- the former wrestler is all kinds of amazing in an expectations-defying performance -- brims over with empathy.
You feel the tension between the two daddies, both avid to protect their child. Aldridge ("Fleabag") finds the heat in Andrew that makes him want to strike out. Groff, so great as singer ("Spring Awakening," "Hamilton") and actor ("Mindhunter," "Looking"), is superb as Eric and speaks movingly to Shyamalan's theme about the necessity of faith in times of crisis.
There are flashbacks to suggest a connection between these men and the intruders who claim to be afflicted with visions that drive them forward. "Knock at the Cabin" is R-rated for scenes of violence. That's no joke. There are brutal images that will pull you up short.
Flesh and spirit have been part of Shyamalan's work from the start in fine films ("The Sixth Sense," "Signs," "Unbroken") and outright duds ("The Happening," "Old," "Glass").
"Knock at the Cabin" can be too fuzzy, too earnest and too full of itself for its own good. Like Wen collecting grasshoppers in a jar, Shyamalan is observing the world in microcosm with good and evil in an uneasy truce. The metaphors weigh a ton. Still, at its best, this is peak-form Shyamalan, a suspense master who knows how to fill the screen with tension and squeeze.