M. Night Shyamalans Knock at the hut (now streaming on Peacock) and Drew Goddard’s The hut in the forest are radically different films, but they are also variations on the same idea. Yes, both are mysterious thrillers that hide big revelations behind well-known horror genres. (Knock at the hut looks like a home invasion thriller at first; cottage in the forest pretends to be a slasher movie.) But the similarities run deeper. In both films, the protagonists are told that they must die to prevent the apocalypse. In both cases, the people who deliver the message are of questionable trust. Both films propose 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 hoping to save the world even if you’ll never know if that’s true?
But cottage in the forest has a lot more fun with the question than Knock at the hut. The films come to very different conclusions about the value of sacrifice and the trustworthiness of anyone asking for it. You make a perfect double feature. But ultimately, Knock at the hut‘s greatest value may be that it does cottage in the forest – already a clever, twisted, simultaneously spooky 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.]
cottage in the forest stands well on its own as a meta-commentary on horror movies, a bonafide of the genre that instills some solid chilling horrors while explaining some of horror cinema’s biggest nonsense. Goddard’s film finds reasons why horny teens in slasher movies are willing to go to the woods for sex, no matter how many rumors they hear about sex-hating machete killers roaming around. And in no time at all, there’s an explanation for why horror movie characters often don’t stick with guns for long.
The core of cottage in the forest is that once a year the evil gods slumbering at the heart of the world (a very Lovecraftian concept) demand a sacrifice in the form of five archetypally beautiful young people. A number of secret organizations around the world carry out this annual sacrifice by selecting victims, luring them into isolation and forcing them into a horror movie scenario. At every step, the victims are monitored and manipulated to ensure their death.
In cottage in the forest, some of the protagonists manage to see behind the curtain and realize that they have been lied to and are essentially being executed in a manner 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 subterfuge and tricks are necessary to keep the monstrosities at bay . (There’s a good strong hint that the “monstrosities” is a metaphor for horror fans who eagerly seek every opportunity to see people graphically die on screen.)
Due to the parameters of the ritual, Dana is told that all she has to do is murder Marty to avert the apocalypse, but she is allowed to live herself – the Gauntlet of Horrors sometimes allows for a “last girl” survivor, but Marty, as comic relief, must die. However, Dana can’t bring herself to do the deed, and in the end she and Marty both decide that a world essentially built on such horrors and sacrifices needn’t exist. So they let the apocalypse happen on purpose.
It’s a shocking yet happy ending – and the polar opposite of what happens in Knock at the hut, 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 unless a family member dies at the hands, the apocalypse is imminent from another in a ritual sacrifice. Much of the film’s question is whether the invaders, led by the hulking Leonard (Dave Bautista), are just delusional and whether the death of one of the family members actually means anything. But various signs point to them telling the truth, forcing the family to make a terrible decision that directly impacts the views on faith and religion that M. Night Shyamalan has infused into some of his earlier films.
The goals of the two films appear to be directly opposite; Knock at the hut suggests the importance of faith in the face of the unknowable while cottage in the forest replies that believing in people is not worth it or gods with evil intentions. But they do a perfect dual role because of the way they interact. Knock at the hut raises many questions it doesn’t answer, and leaves so much room for interpretation that it’s easy to see it as anything of a Environmental disaster warning
Above all, Knock at the hut leaves his entire setup open. It’s never clear what the idea or force is behind the “kill each other or the world ends” business. Is it the Christian God who is testing believers again, as he does in the Old Testament when he requires his successor Abraham to turn his son into a human sacrifice? Is it the gods of another religion or pantheon or creed? The devil? Just a cosmic quirk? Shyamalan almost certainly left out these answers (as did Paul Tremblay, who wrote the novel the film is based on in his much grimmer version of the story) to discourage viewers from arguing about religious dogma. Instead, both men seem to want their audience to stick with the most bare-bones version of the question: Would you kill someone you love to save countless other people?
But that leaves the survivors Beat Characters at sea in a cruel world where they are expected to respect the deceased’s sacrifice without really knowing why it was necessary or who to blame, address or question. In fact, they don’t know what to feel other than sadness. It’s probably not that different from someone who has lost a family member and is wondering why it happened and where to take the anger and frustration that so often accompanies the grief. But it’s not a fully satisfying horror thriller or a perfectly satisfying philosophical experiment. It just leaves the story and characters on an ambiguous and even nihilistic note.
cottage in the forest dials into the specifics of the scenario to make the metaphor clearer and the landing more satisfying. There is a face to the agony that Dana and her friends face – a very human face that was actively chosen to lie to the victims and cover up why they are dying. And if the cottage in the forest Survivors decide that supporting such a treacherous and vampiric world is not worth it, they not only resist fate or evil gods, they resist the cowards who sent them to their deaths in the first place.
This is another interesting path of the two cabin Movies overlap: In Shyamalan’s version, the intercessors preparing the sacrifice are telling the full and absolute truth as they know it. Leonard and his followers are sorry for the pain they cause and are as kind as they can be. Her openness leads one of the protagonists to make the decision to save the world. (It helps that Leonard and his crew clearly have their own skin in the game – they’re also willing to sacrifice themselves, even if they’re hesitant and afraid and don’t understand why it’s necessary.)
In Goddard’s film, however, advocates like the director and her henchmen Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford) deceive, manipulate and taunt their victims, grinning at their naked bodies and betting money on them, which will eventually kill them. None of them compromise their own safety in the annual ritual, which is all about saving their own skin by killing unwitting victims. When Dana and Marty decide to let the whole world fall apart in the hopes that something better will rise from the ashes, their chief resisting is the self-interested cruelty of their tormentors. The ultimate villains aren’t the evil gods – they’re the people they feed.
cottage in the forest is a darker, gorier version of the die to prevent the apocalypse story than Knock at the hutand his version of Uplift is grim and even derogatory — a raised middle finger to the cosmos that says, “You’re not the boss of me.” But it’s still satisfying to revisit it afterwards Knock at the hut, and read in response to a somewhat confused film that deliberately reveals too many of its key elements in the wishy-washy fog. That suggests a punk rock defiance Knock at the hut and its terrified, dejected characters lack energy: the energy to wonder who would design such a terrible system and the rage to resist going along with it. Shyamalan might intend Knock at the hut as a study in faith and faith and a story that makes a hero out of a man willing to die for the people he loves. But cottage in the forest ends up feeling like this man’s well-deserved revenge – an act of defiance by people who refuse to be puppets, no matter who pulls the strings of the world.
Knock at the hut now streaming exclusively on Peacock. The hut in the forest is streaming on HBO Max and is available to rent or purchase at Amazon, vuduand other digital platforms.
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