Knock at the Cabin (2023)

I’m not yet exhausted with M. Night Shyamalan’s schtick, but I am beyond exhausted with the MPAA.  Shyamalan could continue making corny Twilight Zone episodes for the rest of his life, and I’ll always line up to witness his latest stunt, even if they more often land as fun novelties instead of great cinema.  When I think about him, I smile.  Meanwhile, I’m becoming increasingly angered by the continued existence & influence of the MPAA, our modern echo of retro Hays Code moralism.  With Knock at the Cabin, my backburner delight with Shyamalan has inevitably clashed with my overboiling anger with the Motion Picture Association of America, an archaic institution with the power to determine who gets to see his work.  Shyamalan’s latest film is not only an earnest goofball headscratcher from one of Hollywood’s foremost earnest goofballs; it’s also the latest glaring data point in the MPAA’s long history of institutional homophobia.

I was already grumbling about recent MPAA offenses before I sat down to watch Knock at the Cabin the theater.  In just this past month, the original cut of the animatronic horror comedy M3GAN was noticeably defanged to meet the MPAA’s outdated standards for a PG-13 rating, a threshold far below what young teens can freely access on television & the internet at home.  Even more egregiously, the MPAA neutered Brandon Cronenberg’s sci-fi freakout Infinity Pool by cursing it with an NC-17 rating, forcing the studio’s hand in distributing a tamer R-rated edit that national theater chains would be willing to program (even though those chains could freely, legally ignore MPAA rulings whenever they want).  Listening to Cronenberg explain in interviews that the MPAA review & appeal process still involves guiding input from Catholic & Protestant priests in the year of Our Dark Lord 2023 was flabbergasting.  Much like how Blockbuster & Wal-Mart’s self-censorship against distributing immoral, ungodly pop media has guided what the movie industry was willing to produce in the recent past, the MPAA’s relationship with larger theater chains is still directly, purposefully limiting what art I can legally consume as an adult.  It’s corporate, Puritanical bullshit.

The frustrating thing is that M. Night Shyamalan is extremely accommodating to MPAA standards for safe, consumable art.  I remember a behind-the-scenes DVD featurette for The Happening where Shyamalan declared himself to be “Mr. PG-13” and was showing squirmy anxiety over directing his first R-rated feature.  In that film, Shyamalan went out of his way to earn the R, including an onscreen depiction of young children being blasted with a shotgun (which is exactly the shot he was setting up for in that “Mr. PG-13” interview).  By contrast, Knock at the Cabin makes no overt efforts to earn its R rating “for violence and language.”  If anything, its obscured, dulled-down violence and cautious “You piece of crap!” expletives play like the film has been preemptively compromised & edited down for a PG-13 rating, if not for a broadcast television premiere.  Unlike his last one, Shyamalan’s latest widespread disaster film finds him working in “Mr. PG-13” mode, and I can’t help but assume that the only reason the priest-guided MPAA condemned it with an R-rating because its lead couple is gay.  After all, the organization has a long history of rating sexless, violence-free gay content unsuitable for minors, including the even more innocuous titles Pride, Love is Strange, and 3 Generations (not to mention John Waters’s A Dirty Shame landing an NC-17 despite being relatively tame compared to the hetero Farrelly Brothers comedies Waters had indirectly inspired).  Knock at the Cabin is just their latest target.

Beyond noting my personal, petty indignation, the reason the MPAA’s rating matters here is that it’s a real-world example of the fictional homophobia referenced in the text itself.  The world at large is still violently hostile to the public existence of same-gender couples, which is what makes the selfless sacrifice asked of Knock at the Cabin‘s leads so politically loaded.  While vacationing in a remote cabin with their adopted daughter, a married gay couple (Ben Aldridge & Jonathan Groff) are taken hostage by four doomsday zealots who met online (led by the imposing gentle giant Dave Bautista).  The home invasion scenario quickly turns into religious parable, as the armed intruders explain that the hostages must make a Jellicle choice: sacrifice a member of their own family or watch the rest of the world suffer a Biblical apocalypse.  The movie spends a lot of time debating the mechanics & validity of this supernatural scenario, approximating the exact middle ground between Richard Kelly’s sprawling Twilight Zone whatsit The Box and the Evangelical parable The Shack.  Once those debates are settled, though, the real watercooler discussion questions posed to the audience get pretty thorny: Why should this tirelessly persecuted queer couple sacrifice themselves to save a world that spits in their general direction?  How much grace & compassion do they owe to Q-Anon fascists, dive-bar gaybashers, and the institutional homophobes of the MPAA?  Doesn’t the world, on some level, deserve to burn?

I am no priest, so I wasn’t part of the decision-making process for how, exactly, Knock at the Cabin “earned” its R rating.  Maybe “Mr. PG-13” put his foot down on removing the one or two “F-bombs” that put the film over the cussing limit.  Maybe the MPAA took a harsh stance because the film was largely self-financed—not pre-approved corporate product—and Shyamalan didn’t have the extra funding to fight their decision (another sin the organization often repeats).  Maybe none of this matters at all.  Shyamalan still got to screen his off-kilter camera angles, his off-putting cornball humor, and the stunning off-type performance from Bautista (whose hulking presence alone is a sight to behold, recalling the awesome image of Frankenstein’s monster gently, disastrously stooping down to relate to a little girl in 1931).  The MPAA got to decide who’s allowed to see Shyamalan’s latest, but they didn’t stop him from making it, and they didn’t prevent it from earning the #1 box office slot on opening weekend, despite their efforts.  Still, their harsh rating of the film reads like old-school, textbook homophobia to me, enhancing its themes in glaring, unintentional ways.  I pray someone will Jellicle-choice them out of existence as soon as possible.

-Brandon Ledet

Old (2021)

I do not have a firm grasp on the current state of M. Night Shyamalan fandom.  It’s clear that Shyamalan has sparked a renewed interest in his gimmick-prone novelty horrors since his 2015 found-footage comeback The Visit. Since then, he’s had plenty of online defenders for each of his goofball genre experiments, even if that reclamation positions him as a “vulgar auteur.”  What’s unclear is if we’re retroactively extending that goodwill to Shyamalan’s most maligned “misfires” post-Sixth Sense, when he was making equally goofy movies with much slicker Hollywood Studio production values.  If so, I’d like to encourage fans of Shyamalan’s latest novelty horror, Old, to double back and give 2008’s The Happening a second chance.  The same clash of squirmy shock-horror and semi-intentional humor that makes Old so amusingly bizarre was already potent in The Happening. It was just scaled up to an epic eco-horror disaster thriller then, as opposed to his latest work’s stage play limitations.  Shyamalan’s latest set of earnest, go-for-broke horror absurdities are fun, but he has splashed around in these exact novelty schlock waters before, often to grander results.

The Twilight Zone premise and resulting drama of Old is so bar-napkin simple that it was its own standalone meme this past summer, separate from any individual moments or images from the actual film.  As you’ve likely heard, the unofficial title of this movie is The Beach That Makes You Old.  Once its smattering of vacationing families arrives on that magical beach, terror ensues. They’re trapped on The Beach That Makes You Old until they age out & die, confronted with the inevitable limitations & grotesqueries of the human body and the cruel relentlessness of time.  As with all of Shyamalan’s films, this schlocky premise is treated with a surprising amount of genuine, overreaching emotion.  Old is a purely parental horror.  It strays from that genre’s usual preoccupations with rotten children or grief over a child’s untimely death to instead dwell on how quickly all kids rapidly age into independent adults who don’t need you, as your own body decays into obsolescence.  Also, as with all of Shyamalan’s films, Old tosses in just enough overt goofball humor that you know it’s somewhat intentionally funny (including a caricature of a famous rapper who performs under the stage name Mid-Sized Sedan), while also making indecipherable choices that throws that tonal intention & control into question (like having every single character announce their name, occupation, and most prominent illness as conversation starters).  It’s a movie where archetypes make broad pronouncements instead of exchanging dialogue, but it’s also a movie that asks you to take their grotesque, time-elapse demises dead seriously.  It’s pure Shyamalan in that way.

I enjoyed the questions of tonal intent & control in The Beach that Makes You Old just as much as I did in other recent Shyamalan hits like The Grandma that Makes You Uncomfortable and The Superheroes that Make You LaughStill, something about the stripped-down scale of this one made me nostalgic for the days when Shyamalan’s bullshit would be staged on epic blockbuster budgets.  There’s something special about Shyamalan using mainstream studio money to make post-Larry Cohen schlockbusters like The Happening, and I’m a little sad that we’ll likely never see those days again.  I’m even sadder that The Happening still has a reputation as a creative low-point in his career, while Old is being celebrated as one of his most precious gems.  To me, their volatile combinations of quirky character humor & grotesque bodily horror are remarkably similar, but The Happening happens to be a lot more memorable & fun.  Maybe it’s just a nostalgia for seeing Shyamalan work in a mainstream filmmaking context, despite his movies always having been an odd fit for the industry.  Hopefully all this whooping & memeing will eventually earn his way back into those large-scale money-torchers.  I wish nothing but the best for my goofball horror uncle.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #111 of The Swampflix Podcast: Lady in a Cage (1964) & Elevator Horror

Welcome to Episode #111 of The Swampflix Podcast!

Elevated horror” is so 2010s; now elevator horror is the hottest new trend.  For this episode, Britnee & Brandon meet over Skype to discuss a trio of movies about killer elevators, starting with the Olivia de Havilland psychobiddy classic Lady in a Cage (1964). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, YouTube, TuneIn, or by following the links below.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Episode #77 of The Swampflix Podcast: Shyamalan Classics & Spring (2014)

Welcome to Episode #77 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-seventh episode, Brandon & James dive deeper into M. Night Shyamalan canon to re-evaluate the divisive director’s early classics. Also, Brandon makes James watch the Lovecraftian sci-fi romance horror Spring (2014). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

–Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Episode #76 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Eastrail 177 Trilogy & Lady in the Water (2006)

Welcome to Episode #76 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our seventy-sixth episode, Brandon & Britnee dive deep into the murky waters of M. Night Shyamalan at his nerdiest. They discuss the director’s so-called Eastrail 177 Trilogy (Unbreakable, Split, Glass) and Britnee makes Brandon watch her personal favorite Shyamalan joint, Lady in the Water (2006). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloud, Spotify, iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

– Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet

Glass (2019)

M. Night Shyamalan films typically don’t have the best reputation, and for the life of me, I just can’t understand why. Who doesn’t love a beautifully shot mainstream thriller that is guaranteed to have at least one major plot twist? I’ve seen the majority of Shyamalan’s films in theaters (I even saw Lady in the Water five days in a row) because they’re always a treat and well worth the money. Recently, I headed to theaters to see his latest masterpiece, Glass, and it was exactly as amazing as I expected it to be.

Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and Split come together in Glass to complete the trilogy we didn’t know we were already watching until recently. Only the Master of Surprise would take a film from 2000 (Unbreakable), throw in pieces of it at the end of a 2017 film (Split), and combine the two into a concluding film in 2019 (Glass). Personally, I love what he’s done. This surprise trilogy has given me hope that the end of all my favorite movies may not truly be the end. There’s always hope!

David Dunn aka The Overseer (Bruce Willis) and his adult son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), both characters from Unbreakable, work in a home security store while secretly teaming together to bring some vigilante justice to the streets of Philadelphia. Joseph does all the research and tech stuff while David uses his super-human gifts to take down criminals. The duo is set on finding the location of four missing teenage girls, who happen to be kept prisoner by Kevin Wendell Crumb, a.k.a. The Horde (James McAvoy), the main character from Split. The Overseer ends up locating the girls and has a classic superhero versus supervillain showdown with The Horde very early on in the film. Once the fight really starts to heat up, authorities catch them both. After being captured, they are taken to a psychiatric facility to be studied alongside Elijah Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) from Unbreakable. Mr. Glass is probably my favorite character in Glass. He’s this insane master manipulator wearing a suit comparable to Prince’s in Purple Rain, and he made me laugh way more than I expected to. Once this trio is brought together, the plot becomes absolutely insane and unpredictable. You just have to see it to believe it.

Glass is a strange combination of a superhero movie and psychological thriller. Unlike the average superhero movie, there’s not really a distinct villain. Sure, The Horde and Mr. Glass do some pretty evil shit, but they both don’t really fit into the “bad guy” mold. It’s like Shyamalan leaves that up to us to decide. I will definitely need to see this at least one more time to wrap my head around everything, and I’m more than willing to do so. I enjoyed the complex stories within stories in Glass, but unfortunately, that’s not something everyone appreciates (hence the horrible reviews).

-Britnee Lombas

Split (2017)



I left M. Night Shyamalan’s last trashy horror experiment, The Visit, with mixed, but cautiously positive feelings on the director’s redemptive comeback potential. That film’s follow-up, Split, laughs in the face of my caution by revealing a filmmaker who excels as a stylist & a tension-builder on a near-masterful level, a newly confident auteur who’s just starting to get a full grasp on what he can accomplish within his own artistic boundaries two decades into his career. He just happens to be a near-masterful stylist that makes undeniably stupid movies. When an M. Night Shyamalan film is great, it’s brilliantly stupid, combining over-thought & over-stylized art film pretension to an empty, trashy property that doesn’t really deserve it (think Richard Kelly’s The Box as a reference point). When a Shyamalan movie is bad, it’s boringly dumb, the worst kind of limp, undercooked cinematic inanity Hollywood dumps into wide distribution without giving enough thoughtful consideration. Split is brilliantly stupid.

James McAvoy stars as a mentally unstable blue collar worker suffering with the scientifically controversial Dissociative Identity Disorder. While his well-meaning therapist quietly studies him from a distance and tries to build a high-profile career around his exceptional example, the troubled man’s more unsavory personalities begin to dominate his daily actions, keeping his less harmful multiples in the dark. This is not the empathetic, humanist portrait of D.I.D. delivered in United States of Tara, but it’s just as silly & wildly inaccurate. Much like with The Visit, there’s an indelicate genre film cheesiness to the way this movie handles mental health issues that doesn’t exactly deflect criticism, but pushes its depiction so far outside the context of reality that you’d have to reach pretty damn far to be personally offended. McAvoy’s unhinged villain is a scary white man with a debilitating mental disorder who sets in motion a confined space/women-in-captivity thriller plot when one of his most violent alters kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them in a basement for a vague, menacing purpose. The film slowly evolves into a very strange beast in that basement, both asking you to sympathize with the troubled man (an abuse survivor) and to fear the impending revelation of his 24th alternate personality, described as an all-powerful, inhuman monster that will test “the limits of what man can become.” He threatens his captives with ominous declarations like “You are sacred food,” and “The time of ordinary humanity is over,” but nothing could possibly prepare them for the brilliantly stupid weirdness that goes down in the film’s third act.

Of course, the most readily recognizable calling card for M. Night Shyamalan as an auteur is the last minute twist and I’ll do my best to avoid Split‘s ultimate destination out of respect for that trashiest of traditions. I will say, though, that Split‘s best quality is that its Big Twist Ending does not at all cheapen or undercut the plot the film lays out before its arrival. In fact, it at first appears there may be no twist at all. Everything Split introduces as a central theme and a narrative thread, from the therapist’s assertion that D.I.D. might be able to unlock “the full potential of the human brain” & “all things supernatural” to the way privilege can soften competence to the life-long effects of childhood familial abuse to one of the imprisoned teens (The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy) utilizing survivalist skills her father taught her while deer hunting in a Final Girl context, is fully explored in a linear A-B story with very few sharp turns or gimmicks to distract from their impact. Then, when each storyline is fully satisfied & neatly concluded, the Twist Ending arrives to recontextualize everything you’ve seen until that point in a way that expands the film’s scope & somewhat explains its oddly goofy tone instead of shifting its reality entirely. It’s still stupid, but it’s brilliantly stupid.

As genuinely creepy as Split can be in any given scene, especially once it finds itself in the threatened sexual assault territory of generic teens-in-their-underwear horror, it’s also a sublimely silly affair. McAvoy at one point has way too much fun making a show out of his solo bedroom dancing after a character desperately pleads, “I want to hear your Kanye West albums.” He also delivers what is sure to be a strong ironic contender for an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss. Split‘s D.I.D. premise provides a near-borderless playground for him to chew scenery and he does so admirably, fully committing himself to the film’s brilliant stupidity. I think Split works best when it is genuinely creepy, though. Shyamalan is confidently playful with the film’s tone at every turn (even appearing onscreen to practically wink at the camera), but still mines his pulpy premise for plenty sincere tension & dread in a highly stylized, artfully considered way. Split truly does feel like the director’s return to glory. This is the moment when he loudly broadcasts to the whole world that he can still be highly effective within the pulpy genre box he often traps himself in without having to blow the container open with a last minute twist. Here, the twist is allowed to comfortably exist as its own separate, artfully idiotic treat, another sign that the filmmaker has finally become the master of his own brilliantly stupid game. I don’t think I’ve ever left one of his films this deliriously giddy before and it’s an exciting feeling. I now need to see whatever expertly dumb thing he pulls off next.

-Brandon Ledet

The Visit (2015)


three star


The only way I can think to summarize my thoroughly conflicted feelings about The Visit is to recreate The Simpsons‘ take on the shopkeeper scene in Gremlins. The Visit had a surprisingly amusing trailer, but a lot of the best gags were included in the ad. Ooh, that’s bad. But the last half hour is a riot! That’s good. The hour leading up to it is a snooze. That’s bad. But the film ends in a plot-summarizing rap song, one of my all-time favorite movie tropes. That’s good! It’s also a found footage horror movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan . . . That’s bad. Can I go now?

Besides the automatic groans induced its by-the-numbers found footage format, part of what makes The Visit so frustrating is its annoyingly precocious leads. A fifteen year old documentarian & her younger white rapper brother eat up almost the entirety of the film’s runtime, testing my patience in every scene. The pint-sized white rapper is obviously the easier target to pick on here, especially when he’s displaying his cringe-worthy craft for the camera. He boasts to his clueless grandmother, “Do you know who Tyler the Creator is? People say I’ve got that kind of sound,” (Fuck this kid.) but the truth is that he’s a decade-late Aaron Carter at best. Thankfully, his sister calls him out on his bullshit fairly often, calling him “ethnically confused” & describing his art as “songs of misogyny” (he’s particularly fond of punctuating songs with the words “bitch” & “ho”), but the truth is she’s not much better. More arrogant poser than accomplished auteur, she’s prone to saying things like “I hate sappy movies. I find them torturous,” that remind me way too much of the asshole, know-it-all personality I’m glad (or I hope) that I left behind in my teens. It’s a fairly insufferable combo.

The good news is that they’re punished for their shortcomings . . . eventually. Hurting from an early separation from their father, the kids suffer from some crippling neuroses: the documentarian has a disgust with her own self-image and the lil’ rapper struggles both with germophobia & a tendency to freeze under pressure. In an attempt to heal old wounds in their mother’s life & to fill the familial void left by their absent father, the kids decide to document a week-long visit with their estranged grandparents. Subverting the old hat horror trope that kids are usually the creepy ones (something exploited as recently as the Sinister franchise), the grandparents’ “sundowning” & dementia make them out to be a horrific threat that gets increasingly dangerous as the week drags on. The grandparents honestly don’t say too much for the first two-thirds of the film, which is a damn shame, because they’re infinitely more interesting than their would-be victims. What starts out as warning signs like catching them naked, scratching door jams like a cat sharpening its claws & hoarding used diapers in a locked toolshed eventually escalates to A Big Showdown worthy of an 80’s slasher flick. In the movie’s last minute chaos, the kids’ debilitating nueroses are literally thrown in their faces as they’re confronted with mirrors & germ-infested feces in way that finally, finally delivers on some of the potential of a immensely promising premise.

In a lot of ways it’s the typical Shyamalan plot structure that makes the full experience of The Visit so conflicting. The tyranny of The Last Minute Twist drags the film down so hard, evoking far more boredom than tension as you wait for the hammer to finally fall. There’s a little fun to be had before the twist, like when the grandmother chases the kids through a crawl space like a wild animal only to cheerily announce “I’m making chicken pot pie!” when she catches them. Speaking of food, her constant offerings of cookies, bread pudding, cheddar biscuits, and whatever else give the film a distinct Hansel & Gretel vibe, one intentionally landed by her insistence that one of the kids climb into the oven “to clean it”. There’s also some laughable horror movie tropes, like the fact that they’re trapped in an isolated, one cop town with no Wi-Fi or cellphone reception. By the time the film finally devolves into geriatric mayhem, which includes divine moments like the lines “I have the deep darkies. You have to laugh to keep the deep darkies in a cave,” & “I see the veiny, deformed face of the world,” as well as the world’s most tense game of Yahtzee (“We picked teams! Young vs. old.”), I find myself wondering why it couldn’t have been that fun the entire time. Shyamalan’s dedication to springing a surprise on his audience in the final act is needlessly frustrating. Why not have The Twist arrive earlier in the sparsely populated runtime to make room for more senior citizen terror? Why not give the people what they want early & often?

I left my visit with The Visit firmly on the fence with how I felt about it. Although I wished more of the film was like the bonkers final half hour, that type of non-stop old folgey mayhem was already delivered decades ago in the straight-to-VHS gore fest Rabid Grannies. Although the film suffers under the Tyranny of the Twist, Shyamalan knowingly alludes to how frustrating that plot structure can be & teases possible out-there twists like underwater aliens & “the white thing with the yellow eyes” in a admirably prankish attempt to screw with audience expectations. Although I found the main characters to be unbearably dull & precocious (far beyond what I believe was intended), I also found their character arcs to be sufficiently satisfying by the film’s conclusion. It wasn’t until I was standing outside the theater, overhearing a stranger complain, “We’ll that’s two hours I’ll never get back” that my opinion instantly became slightly more positive than my initial indecision. Out of pure spite & pettiness for that offhand comment, I thought to myself “You know what? I’ve seen way worse. It was alright.” You could probably attribute half a star of my rating to that little bit of vindictive eavesdropping. Otherwise, I’d still be exactly divided on how I felt.

-Brandon Ledet