(CNN) -- M. Night Shyamalan's forays into adapting other material came up limp with "Old" but fare considerably better with "Knock at the Cabin," a crisp and creepy thriller based on Paul Tremblay's novel. Economically told and cleverly calibrated to maximize its claustrophobic setting, it's among the most effective films the director has delivered since his mid-career slump, making this a door well worth opening.
Although the confined nature of the action has something in common with Shyamalan's early alien-invasion movie "Signs," the premise of Tremblay's book (titled "The Cabin at the End of the World") in this form more closely resembles "The Rapture," Michael Tolkin's unsettling 1991 rumination on the prospect of the apocalypse.
Launching immediately into the plot, the film begins with seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) and her two dads, Eric and Andrew (Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge), vacationing in a remote cabin when four strangers arrive, warning them that they face "tough decisions, terrible decisions."
The ostensible leader of the group, the hulking Leonard ("Guardians of the Galaxy's" Dave Bautista), explains that the three must choose one member of the family to die, and kill him or her themselves. If they fail to undertake this sacrifice, everyone else in the world will die.
Acknowledging that the scenario as presented sounds insane, Leonard and company seek to convince their hostages by providing evidence in the form of tragedies (plagues, as they call them) that appear to be unleashed each time Eric and Andrew refuse to act. But of course, any rational-minded person would have major doubts, with Andrew in particular seeing the foursome -- who go to great lengths to humanize themselves -- as having bought into a deranged doomsday cult.
Sharing script credit with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman, Shyamalan opens up the story (taking some key liberties) with shrewd use of flashbacks into Eric and Andrew's life together, from meeting parents to adopting Wen to dealing with homophobia.
That last aspect brings an additional level of distrust to what's happening, with Andrew having seen it up close and wary that some hidden animus is at the heart of this bizarre situation. (As a footnote, coupled with this week's episode of HBO's "The Last of Us," it's another depiction of a loving gay couple in a genre that hasn't always been particularly progressive.)
Most significantly, at a taut 100 minutes, "Knock at the Cabin" doesn't overstay its welcome, when running even five or 10 minutes too long would potentially hobble this sort of exercise. The restrained performances (Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn and Rupert Grint round out the cast) fuel the sustained tension, as does Herdís Stefánsdóttir's pounding score.
Shyamalan enjoyed such ostentatious early success with "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" that a bit of a slump was perhaps inevitable, but even allowing for that his creative swoon felt particularly pronounced, including side trips into television. Grading on that curve, with "Knock at the Cabin" and to lesser degrees "Split" and "Glass," the director's tough decisions of late have mostly yielded markedly better results.
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Knock at the Cabin is now in U.S. theaters. It's rated R.