The Village asks more questions than it answers, cloaks itself in cinematic tricks and proves once again that writer-director M Night Shyamalan has a colossal nerve. It is also the most exciting, engrossing and thought-provoking mainstream movie of 2004. The village in question is a 19th century Amish-style community, enclosed by a wood full of clawed beasties known as Those We Don't Speak Of. When youngster Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) wants to leave for the city, an uneasy peace is broken...
This is a horror film for all the family, relying on atmosphere over gut-spilling gore to lock you in its clammy grip. For shorthand, think Arthur Miller's (Salem witchhunt-set) The Crucible meets Rosemary's Baby - with the former's power-crazed Puritanism and the latter's creeping menace.
"SHYAMALAN SHOWS OFF HIS SUBLIME GIFT FOR SUSPENSE"
Phoenix is the picture's pulse, with his silent, brooding presence and intense charisma. Bryce Dallas Howard avoids glassy-eyed cliché as the blind, Little Red Riding Hood he romances. William Hurt - so often mired in mannerism - delivers a delicate turn, balanced between fond father and suspicious sage, as well as keeping an admirably straight face when required to talk of such things as The Old Shed That Is Not To Be Used.
The Village does require faith; you must commit to it. Go in with a snide attitude, desperate to see The Sixth Sense director fail, and you'll leave with your prejudices underpinned. Better to embrace the experience and allow Shyamalan to show off his sublime gift for suspense.
This may be the most gleefully manipulative movie since prime period Hitchcock. Yet even as the love it/loathe it third act unfolds, its narrative bullets spent, there are social issues to consider for those so inclined. Does the conclusion endorse isolationism or simply state This Is The Way Things Are? Whichever, one disquieting message is clear: we are as troubling as any monsters.