M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin (now streaming on Peacock) and Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods are radically different movies, but they’re also variations on the same idea. Yes, both are mystery-driven thrillers that hide big reveals behind familiar horror genres. (Knock at the Cabin initially looks like a home-invasion thriller; Cabin in the Woods is pretending to be a slasher movie.) But the similarities run deeper. In both movies, protagonists are told they have to die to prevent the apocalypse. In both cases, the people delivering the message are questionably trustworthy. Both movies suggest the same questions: What would you do if you were told you had to sacrifice yourself to save people you don’t know? Is it worth dying in the hope you might save the world, even if you’ll never know whether that’s true?
But Cabin in the Woods has a lot more fun with the question than Knock at the Cabin. The movies reach very different conclusions about the value of sacrifice, and about the trustworthiness of anyone who demands it. They make a perfect double feature. But ultimately, Knock at the Cabin’s biggest value may be that it makes Cabin in the Woods — already a clever, twist-filled, simultaneously scary and hilarious experience for horror fans — even better than it was on its own.
[Ed. note: End spoilers ahead for both Knock at the Cabin and The Cabin in the Woods.]
Cabin in the Woods stands nicely on its own as a meta-commentary on horror movies, a goof on the genre that gets in some solid, creepy scares, while explaining some of horror cinema’s biggest nonsense. Goddard’s film finds reasons for why horny teens in slasher movies are willing to run off into the woods for sex, no matter how many rumors they hear about sex-hating machete-murderers roaming around. And, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual gag, there’s an explanation for why horror movie characters often don’t hang onto weapons for long.
The gist of Cabin in the Woods is that once a year, the evil gods slumbering in the heart of the world (a very Lovecraftian concept) demand a sacrifice, in the form of five archetypal beautiful young people. A series of secret organizations around the world engineers that annual sacrifice by selecting victims, luring them into isolation, and forcing them into a horror movie scenario. At every step, the sacrifices are monitored and manipulated to ensure their deaths.
In Cabin in the Woods, some of the protagonists manage to see behind the curtain and realize they’ve been lied to, and are essentially being executed in ways designed to maximize their terror and suffering. When two of the survivors, Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Marty (Fran Kranz) confront the mysterious director (Sigourney Weaver) behind the American iteration of the ritual, she explains that all the deception and trickery is necessary to keep the monstrosities at bay. (There’s a good strong hint there that the “monstrosities” are a metaphor for horror fans, who eagerly seek out every opportunity to watch people die graphically on screen.)
Because of the parameters of the ritual, Dana is told she just has to murder Marty to avert the apocalypse, but she’s allowed to live herself — the horror gauntlet sometimes allows for a “final girl” survivor, but Marty, as the comic relief, has to die. Dana can’t quite bring herself to do the deed, though, and in the end, she and Marty both decide that a world that’s fundamentally built on such horrors and sacrifices doesn’t need to endure. So they willfully let the apocalypse happen.
It’s a shocking and simultaneously gleeful ending — and the exact opposite of what happens in Knock at the Cabin, where two men, Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge) and their daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui), are taken hostage by strangers who tell them that the apocalypse is coming, unless one member of the family dies at the hands of another in a ritual sacrifice. Much of the question of the movie is whether the intruders, led by the hulking Leonard (Dave Bautista), are just delusional, and whether one of the family members dying will actually mean anything. But various signs suggest they’re telling the truth, which forces the family into an awful decision that plays directly into the views on faith and religion that M. Night Shyamalan built into some of his earlier movies.
The aims of the two films seem to be directly opposed; Knock at the Cabin suggests the importance of faith in the face of the unknowable, while Cabin in the Woods answers that it isn’t worth keeping faith in people or gods with bad intentions. But they make a perfect double feature because of the way they interact. Knock at the Cabin raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer, and leaves so much room for interpretation that it’s easy to see it as anything from a warning about environmental disaster to a coy expression of homophobia disguised as a love story. Cabin in the Woods reads like a response, somehow released 12 years earlier — and its answers to Knock’s questions are pretty funny.
Above all, Knock at the Cabin leaves its entire setup open-ended. It’s never clear what idea or force is behind the “kill each other or the world ends” business. Is it the Christian God testing the faithful again, as he does in the Old Testament, when he demands his follower Abraham turn his son into a human sacrifice? Is it the gods of some other religion or pantheon or faith? The Devil? Just a cosmic quirk? Shyamalan almost certainly left out those answers (just like Paul Tremblay, who wrote the novel the movie is based on, did in his much grimmer version of the story) to keep viewers from quibbling over religious dogma. Instead, both men seem to want their audience to stick to the barest version of the question: Would you kill someone you love to save countless other people?
But that leaves the surviving Knock characters at sea in a cruel world where they’re expected to respect the sacrifice of the one who died, without really having any idea of why it was necessary, or who to blame, appeal to, or question. In effect, they don’t know what to feel except grief. Arguably, that’s not so different from anyone who loses a family member and wonders why it happened, and where to put the anger and frustration that so often occur alongside grief. But it doesn’t make for an entirely satisfying horror-thriller or an entirely satisfying philosophical experiment. It just leaves the story and characters on an ambiguous and even nihilistic note.
Cabin in the Woods dials into the specifics of the scenario to make the metaphor clearer and the landing more satisfying. It puts a face on the torments Dana and her friends are facing — a very human face that’s actively chosen to lie to the victims and cover up why they’re dying. And when the Cabin in the Woods survivors decide it isn’t worth propping up such a deceptive and vampiric world, they aren’t just resisting fate or evil gods, they’re fighting back against the cowards who sent them to die in the first place.
That’s another interesting way the two Cabin movies intersect: In Shyamalan’s version, the intercessors setting up the sacrifice tell the full and absolute truth as they know it. Leonard and his cohort regret the pain they’re causing, and they’re as kind about it as they can be. Their frankness leads to one of the protagonists making the choice to save the world. (It helps that Leonard and his crew clearly have their own skin in the game — they’re willing to sacrifice themselves too, even if they’re reluctant and afraid, and don’t understand why it’s necessary.)
In Goddard’s film, by contrast, intercessors like the director and her minions Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) deceive, manipulate, and secretly mock their victims, leering at their bare bodies and betting money on what will finally kill them. None of them are putting their own safety on the line in the annual ritual, which is entirely about saving their own skins by killing unwitting victims. When Dana and Marty decide to let the whole world fall apart in hopes that something better will rise out of the ashes, they’re mostly just resisting their tormentors’ self-serving cruelty. The ultimate bad guys aren’t the evil gods — they’re the people feeding them.
Cabin in the Woods is a darker, bloodier version of the “die to prevent the apocalypse” story than Knock at the Cabin, and its version of uplift is grim and even snide — a raised middle finger to the cosmos, saying “You ain’t the boss of me.” But it’s still satisfying to revisit in the wake of Knock at the Cabin, and to read it as a response to a somewhat muddled film that deliberately abandons too many of its most important elements in a wishy-washy haze. It suggests a punk-rock defiance that Knock at the Cabin and its frightened, beaten-down characters all lack: the energy to question who would design such an awful system, and the anger to resist going along with it. Shyamalan may intend Knock at the Cabin as a study of faith and belief, and a story that makes a hero out of a man who’s willing to die for the people he loves. But Cabin in the Woods winds up feeling like that man’s well-deserved vengeance — an act of resistance by people who resent being puppets, no matter who’s holding the strings of the world.