Who could have predicted five years ago that the unwieldy name of M. Night Shayamalan would soon be on the lips of millions of moviegoers across the globe? But that was before the $661 million worldwide gross of The Sixth Sense (1999) and the $402 million posted by Signs (2002). This 33-year-old master of the spooky movie is now readying his fourth film in a row for Touchstone Pictures, The Village, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Adrien Brody, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver and newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of director Ron Howard. Set in the 19th century, it's Shyamalan's first period project, but with the same palpable mood of mystery his fans have grown to expect.

The secret of Shyamalan's success is tied to the secrets of his movies (most notably, the stunning surprise ending of The Sixth Sense), so no one's telling what's hidden in the woods surrounding the new film's isolated village that has its residents so unnerved. Audiences craving stylish suspense will learn the answer beginning July 30.

The inspiration for The Village was, of all things, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which Shyamalan was offered as a potential film project. "Going back and reading the book, I got romanced by the idea of living in that emotional time period, when people were all about anguish and love and it was all on your sleeve, and you rode in a carriage for two hours to go meet your woman. Those days of innocence, where the important things seemed important—whereas now we're all about TiVo and iPods and downloading. What is it really about? To be in that world was refreshing—where people just said what they said, good or bad. Everything was very open and in big, broad strokes. I love! I hate! It's such a healthy way to be, rather than all the grays we live in. Tomorrow I finish the movie—it's been almost two years—and I'm sad that I'm gonna stop living in that world."

Shymalan muses that "doing a period piece, my sensibility comes out very wild—weird and eerie in this kind of reserved, dissonant way. I love that. The blend of this sentimental, overt world and the very restrained way of shooting it creates the feeling that something wrong is in the air."

The director oversaw the construction of the eponymous village in Chester County, Pennsylvania, near his home outside Philadelphia. Making a period film, he admits, "was more challenging than I thought it would be. Every area of making the movie was taxing. You couldn't just turn on the camera and watch two people talking on a sofa. Everything had to be meticulously done, choosing every single thing and making sure it was period-accurate. Then the costumes and the extras and what the music sounds like, and the dialogue and the performances. Everything required my 100% attention. I didn't realize how much you have to take from step one, on every single level.

"Luckily," Shyamalan adds, "I live in an old historic area of Pennsylvania, and I'm besieged by all that—how they made food and how they acted. I literally had to go down the street for experts. I have a farmhouse that predates this movie. It wasn't like I was creating Morocco in the 17th century—I was recreating stuff that exists."

Born in Pondicherry, India, Shyamalan grew up in the Philadelphia area and makes all his movies close to home. "I guess in some ways I'm not that adventurous a guy," he admits. "I feel better doing something enormous if I have certain factors that are safe, and being in Philly makes me feel safe. I don't like sprawling things, I like limitations. I like something small that can become big. So you keep the budgets down and keep the shooting days down, and you shoot near home and you think of simple ideas that can be huge."

Shyamalan feels his audience will be both satisfied and surprised by his new film. "Unbreakable [his 2000 Bruce Willis-Samuel L. Jackson drama] was such a shock second movie after Sixth Sense in terms of tonality and how dark it was. I think that only drove the opening day of Signs through the roof, because of that combination. In the end, I think The Village will be a wonderful fourth piece. It's so different, yet the same in a way. You know it's me that did it, but it really is completely different in feeling. The four feel very separate from one another. Sixth Sense is a scary drama, Unbreakable is more of an arty take on the origins of comic books, Signs is more a popcorn spiritual movie. And The Village is a very eerie period romance."

At the center of that romance is Signs co-star Phoenix ("We got quite close on Signs—I wrote this part for him, wrote it about how he is") and 23-year-old Howard. Shyamalan recalls how he discovered the newcomer. "I went to see her for another role, and I was blown away: 'Wow! Does anybody else see this? Why aren't people jumping onto the stage?' And my wife said, 'So are you going to cast her?' And I said, 'No, she's not good for that part, she's got way too much charisma and life and light.' Shyamalan was so impressed, he didn't even audition Howard once he felt he had the right role for her.

"We got really lucky with all the actors," the Village director declares. "They're all so talented, over-cast in the most wonderful of ways."

Shyamalan says there's nothing calculated about his extraordinary success. "I always wonder about people who did something they became very known for, but it wasn't something they could duplicate or something that really represents them as a human being. Then they feel this inevitable clash with what people want and who they are, and it ends poorly for them. But no one asked me to write The Sixth Sense—I just figured out how I like to tell stories and it turned out to be successful, and I thought of another movie and another one and another one. I'm happy that it happened in the right way rather than in an orchestrated manner. I don't feel any pressure—I've got an idea for the next movie and I can't wait to start writing it. Each one helps me to say something or work through something, and so far, so good—people are turning up and the movies are connecting. Obviously, one day one of the movies won't connect, but I should be equally okay with the fact that I'm still doing

something important to me, without an agenda."