There are times when the film critic's lot is not a happy lot. With the acrid stench of Catwoman still hanging in the air, we are greeted by a cornucopia of international stinkers. From Russia comes Aleksandr Sokurov's Father and Son, a prize-winning bore which "explores" the notion that "a father's love crucifies, and a son loves to be crucified", and which is every bit as hilariously exciting as that sounds. The word ponderous does not begin to describe the mind-numbing tedium of this navel-gazing tripe. Meanwhile from France (via Britain) comes Merci Docteur Rey, an abominable Merchant Ivory sex-comedy-cum-murder-mystery that teases career-low performances from its entire cast: Dianne Wiest is rubbish as a neurotic opera diva; Jane Birkin is rubbish as a rubbish actress; and Vanessa Redgrave, unbelievably, manages to be rubbish as Vanessa Redgrave. Astonishing!
Amid all this celluloid horror, we should offer three hearty cheers for The Village, the latest eerie chiller from M Night Shyamalan, the writer/director of the highbrow hit The Sixth Sense. Bucking the trend set by wannabe summer "blockbusters" such as The Stepford Wives, The Village is a mainstream American movie that thinks with its head rather than its wallet. That this ambitious fantasy will doubtless prove too slow, thoughtful and perhaps even uneventful for many MTV-generation viewers should be seen as a validation rather than a criticism. For in an age in which audiences are often treated as if they have the attention span of a forgetful gnat, Shyamalan is content to take his time as he gathers us round the cinematic campfire to spin another yarn full of imagined (rather than explicit) horrors.
In what appears to be a late 19th-century rural idyll, a group of earnestly earthy settlers maintain an uneasy truce between their isolated village life and the marauding monsters of the surrounding woods. Arcane rituals such as the sacrifice of meat, and a strict adherence to colour-coded boundaries, keep the villagers safe from "those of whom we do not speak". But when the beasts start running night-time sorties into the human encampment, skinning livestock, scratching doors and scaring the children, the elders suspect the transgression of one of their own. Meanwhile, a young woman, Ivy Walker, is discovering that love can be dangerous as her declaration of devotion to the strong but silent Lucius Hunt seems to bring beastly retribution.
After the intergalactic hyperbole of Signs, The Village finds Shyamalan returning to the more personal concerns of his most underrated movie, Unbreakable, a film that baffled audiences at the time, but which is now considered by many to be his best work. Imagine Little Red Riding Hood landing upon the pagan shores of The Wicker Man, or lycanthropes descending upon the Amish settlers of Witness, and you are in the thematic vicinity of The Village. While the dark fairy-tale tone of the piece clearly owes much to the writings of the Brothers Grimm, a more modern reference point would be the Angela Carter-scripted film The Company of Wolves, with which this shares an evocative colour palette (muted browns and yellows splattered with dangerous shards of red) and a subtextual sense of innocence awakened. There is also another Twilight Zone-style "twist" - although, as with all of Shyamalan's previous films, anyone who does not have a premonition of the ending clearly wasn't paying attention at the beginning. Just as we always suspected Bruce Willis's other-worldly nature in The Sixth Sense, so the (not so) dark secret of The Village comes less as a surprise than as a richly satisfying conclusion.
Shot with neo-realist fairy-tale grandeur by Roger Deakins, and effectively accompanied by James Newton Howard's lonely score, The Village benefits from a brace of stand-out performances by accomplished screen actors clearly relishing the chance to flex their theatrical muscles. William Hurt is in particularly fine form, reminding us just what a commanding screen presence he can be on the rare occasions that he finds material (such as Body Heat, Broadcast News or Altered States) worthy of his quirky talents. Elsewhere, strong parental support from Sigourney Weaver and Brendan Gleeson is matched by the youthful charms of Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, the latter a screen newcomer (and daughter of director Ron Howard) who invests the role of Ivy with a winning mix of innocent charm and rugged determination. Admirably, the dread spectre of "disability" never enters the picture as the blind Ivy single-handedly takes on the terrors of the dark woods. Only Adrien Brody stumbles as the village simpleton, his performance veering occasionally towards parody. But it is a minor wrong note in an otherwise harmonious symphony of performance, design and direction - a brave attempt to do something different in a market place that generally urges successful film-makers simply to rinse and repeat.