Back in 1999 when one blockbuster followed another with a variable degree of intelligence and a greater amount of special effects, along came an old-fashioned ghost story called The Sixth Sense, which dared to keep the camera still, the soundtrack quiet, and to let the audience in on the experience (even though it also cast macho Bruce Willis as a sleepy-looking psychologist to precocious Hayley Joel Osment.)
The Sixth Sense was followed by Unbreakable (again with Willis) and Signs, with Mel Gibson this time as the macho hero for whom widowhood has made him lose the faith that he regains when fear strikes the world at the sight of alien invasion on every TV channel (an allegory for September 11th). Also cast as Gibson's brother was Joachim Phoenix, for whom M. Night Shyamalan specifically wrote his next project, the unusual setting on this occasion being a remote village in the 19th century, where a fragile but happy existence is enjoyed by the community in spite of the growing threat of murderous creatures in the woods.
Things turn awry however when quiet, introverted but courageous Lucius Hunt (Phoenix) dares to walk the line into the woods - and the domain of the creatures - and both he and the villagers suffer the consequences.
Unusually however, when events in the story take an unexpected turn, it is not Lucius but his prospective fiancee Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) - who has quietly slipped into the film one third of the way through - who takes up the challenge to go beyond the woods into the towns to get help. Ivy, blind since childhood, is ironically the best qualified for such a quest, for being intuitively able to sense things that others cannot, her blindness being her strength as well as her handicap - and helping also to heighten the suspense and terror in the audience.
The Village is one of the few cases where I have sat in the cinema and audiences have literally screamed aloud, a testament to the suspense and atmosphere created by Shyamalan, not only from the threat of the creatures but also the beautifully conveyed scenery and sense of community (the wedding barn dance strongly reminisces Heaven's Gate), thanks also to a superb supporting cast - the best of all Shyamalan's films - that includes William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, and in an offbeat diversion from his Oscar-winning The Pianist, Adrien Brody - as the village idiot, who like Ivy, is a lot smarter than he looks.
In spite of its beautiful construction and taut suspense, a certain amount of critical backlash has - unfairly in my view - been accorded The Village. Trailers for the film misleadingly emphasised most of the horror aspects, and some audiences expecting a ghostly shocker on the lines of The Sixth Sense were rather disappointed to find an elegiac suspenseful romantic drama instead. The characteristic final twist in the tale is (as with most of Shyamalan's work) quite guessable, but does not in any way diminish from the tension or the atmosphere. If anything, it serves to strengthen the resolve of the village elders, and speaks a great deal about the spiritual dedication of their cause.
Many of M. Night Shyamalan's films have a haunting spiritual undertone, drawn from his upbringing (from India but raised in America) and though his recent work seems to have withered and turned pretentious in the eyes of many, The Village is one of his best works, on all counts.