Filmed near Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, where the Amish continue to practice the simple life, The Village seems the perfect incarnation of a 19th-century farming community, its stone-and-planked houses, Shaker-style furniture and homespun cloaks evocative of a time more innocent and hopeful than our own. As it turns out, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's illusion is more than a matter of set design and costumes. The quaint hamlet has its sinister side, for sure, but the residents of this rural retreat have secrets that are otherworldly in more ways than one.

Shyamalan's fourth Touchstone feature shares elements of his previous work--The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs--although with each movie the filmmaker seems more intent on exploring the vagaries of the human heart than making it skip a beat from fright. The Village is eerie and, occasionally, startling, but it's not a thriller in the conventional sense. Shyamalan spends more time romancing his characters than spooking them, a narrative ploy that may disappoint some of his fans. On the other hand, he injects real tension, one might even say horror, into an otherwise maudlin love story, mixing together elements of the two genres with those of costume drama, all the while prepping for a surprise finish.

Shyamalan's set-up, however, is classic. Despite the joy they seem to take in plain living, the inhabitants of a picturesque village somewhere in the Appalachians aren't happy, or rather, they are haunted by a nagging fear. They believe the woods surrounding their settlement are possessed by menacing creatures. The two groups have struck a truce, however: the people stay out of the forest, and the creatures stay out of the clearing. As an extra precaution, the villagers have cordoned their area with torches and yellow flags, a color apparently abhorred by the beasts.

Aided by such talismans, the villagers go on with life, although, paradoxically, the film begins at the graveside of a child who has succumbed to illness. The death has prompted Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) to question the strict edict of village elder Edward Walker (William Hurt) to never enter the woods. Lucius wants to journey through the forest to the city, where he can replenish the village's deleted stock of medicine.

The situation is complicated by disturbing indications that the mysterious creatures have tired of their neighbors, scattering about mutilated animals as warnings of their new malevolence. When Noah Percy (Adrien Brody), a kind of impish village idiot, foolishly ventures into the forest, the creatures make it clear their patience is exhausted.

Shyamalan, of course, keeps us guessing as to whether these creatures are real or imaginary phantoms. And resident skeptic Lucius is distracted by a different sort of apparition, a lovely creature named Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), Edward Walker's blind daughter. Their courtship threatens to turn the film into Wuthering Heights (a novel Shyamalan claims to have inspired The Village), when still another rash act by Noah changes everything--and forces Ivy, despite her handicap, to embark on the journey Lucius is now unable to make.

As in Signs, a movie revolving around a lapsed cleric's rediscovery of faith, The Village is about a community that must summon the courage to face their fears--a morality tale that clearly has relevance for our increasingly dangerous world. This time, however, Shyamalan dispenses with the supernatural, eschewing ghosts and space aliens for chimerical creatures that change their reality, and the reality of those who encounter them.

Moviegoers who look too hard for the puppetmaster tugging the plot strings run the risk of ruining for themselves the movie's final twist. Those who give themselves to this film, beautifully lensed with a fine performance by newcomer Howard, will have the pleasure of rewinding the early reels in their mind. They will discover that the stilted dialogue and self-conscious acting has all been an amusing ruse.

--Rex Roberts