I recently sat down to watch Knock at the Cabin, a new horror movie by the guy who has struggled to bring us anything to rival his first movie, The Sixth Sense. Based on the book, The Cabin at the End of the World by author Paul Tremblay – which is a better title, albeit way too long – the movie tells the story of a family held in captivity in a cabin by four home invaders and forced to make an impossible choice: sacrifice one member of the family to prevent the approaching apocalypse. All-in-all, while I wouldn't kick Knock out of bed, I doubt I'll ever call it back for a second go. This is because, though the movie was certainly tense and had a strong, high-concept premise, it didn't do enough to go beyond its premise and both its bad guys and good guys weren't multi-dimensional enough for me to be interested in them.
Let's dig a little deeper into what went wrong with this one.
High Concept, Low Payoff
The premise for Knock is a solid high concept. In case you’re not familiar, “high concept” is terminology in storytelling whereby the story’s idea can be quickly explained in a way that allows you to “get” what the movie’s about quickly.
High concepts are often expressed as “what if” questions, such as: What if the fences at a dinosaur amusement park malfunctioned?
So the high concept for this movie would go something like this: What if a family had to choose between sacrificing one of their own and preventing an apocalypse?
But the thing with high concept is that it must go beyond its initial attention-grabbing premise to surprise the audience in some way. Think of The Sixth Sense, a high concept movie about a boy who can see dead people. But, within that high concept, there’s a twist that you don’t see coming.
Knock didn’t really go beyond its concept into anything that surprised me. Once the film’s concept was on the table, I started to wait for the twist, the turn, the surprise.
But none came.
The family had an impossible choice to make, they made it, then the movie ended.
Perhaps This Just Isn’t My Type of Horror?
Admittedly, I did try reading the book version of this movie a while back. But I couldn’t get into it. Paul Tremblay as a writer I’m still on the fence about. His book, Survivor Song, about a zombie-ish apocalypse that I did read through to the end, really was just okay. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad. Just okay.
So as I was getting into the book version of this movie, I found myself only half-interested. His writing is slow and a bit over-detailed. It’s missing an edge. It’s almost softcore horror, like those frosted filter, porn movies CityTV used to show at 3am.
And perhaps softcore horror is the audience he’s attracting – which is perfectly valid. Similarly, Knock at the Cabin felt softcore. The camera even turns away from all the horrific scenes of sacrifice the family is forced to witness, almost like the filmmaker is providing you with the pillow to cover your face and avoid seeing it.
Were they afraid to make the audience feel "unsafe"?
The Bad Guys Just Weren’t Scary
Maybe they weren’t supposed to be? The bad guys themselves were just normal people, also pulled into this impossible decision, having been randomly chosen as messengers – an interesting idea, but more could have been done with them.
For example, the choice to sacrifice the only unhinged bad guy first – the redneck – was a mistake in my mind. I would have killed the weakest and most innocent of the bad guys first – the mother/chef – because innocence should always be the first to go in horror.
Have We Substituted One Gay Character Stereotype for Another?
As with any story with gay characters at the centre of it, I was skeptical from the outset. Why? Because frankly I’m tired of stereotypical gay characters when the sole focus is about them being gay – about their lives of oppression and journeys to either finding acceptance from their Christian community or, you know, dying and leaving behind nothing more than a plaid shirt.
And while Knock at the Cabin did of course sew some gaybashing and parental disapproval into the back stories of the two main characters (because of course!), I will give it a C+ for not making their entire characterization about their gay oppression.
Still, I rolled my eyes in a couple scenes, including when the 4 bad guys insisted that the reason behind their home invasion was absolutely not about homophobia, almost as if the filmmaker, again, had to spare the audience the discomfort of that being a possibility.
I’m also sensing that, in our efforts to move past the oppressed gay character stereotype, another stereotype has emerged in its place – the morally pure gay character. The husbands had zero character flaws. There was no tension in their relationship. They were perfect, just as they are.
Why not add some flaws? Like, how much more interesting would the story have been if the husbands were at the same time facing the possibility of divorce because of infidelity? Or what if one of them was sick and hadn’t told the other yet? Or what if their daughter loved one of them more than the other? The family was portrayed as having life and love perfectly figured out.
And Can We Stop with the Slowly Checking Behind the Curtain Trope?
The last straw for me was that scene where one of the husbands is very slowly reaching toward the shower curtain to see if the bad guy is hiding behind it. Can we just stop with that? It’s nearly as bad as the cat-jumping-out jump scare trope.
Check out this scene from one of my fave films, The Edge, which does it much better. Instead of slowly approaching the scary door/window/curtain, Anthony Hopkins lingers in his fear for a tense moment, then marches over to the door and slams it shut. It’s much more jarring and, frankly, realistic.
All that being said, give the movie a shot anyway
Yes I hacked the movie to pieces, but all-in-all, I wouldn’t recommend not trying Knock at the Cabin out. Give the movie a go yourself and see what you think. I did find myself wanting to see it through to the end, so it couldn't have been all bad then, right?
And the moral of the story is
Flawless gay characters = flawed storytelling.