To paraphrase Chubby Checker: let's twist again, like we did last summer. Or, to be more precise, the summer before last. Ever since Signs got 'em queuing round the block, Disney has consciously earmarked The Village as its Big Summer Event Movie For 2004. Which is problematic: whereas Signs gave us a ride, The Village is practically immobile, an ominous, frosty mood-piece where Roger Deakins' evocative cinematography charcoals a world of forever autumn, of faded tints and low November suns. It feels like an oppressive winter movie that migrated too early from the release schedules. It's about as summery as a Halloween pumpkin.
And that's just the beginning of The Village's almost wilful perversity. Adrien Brody's mannered turn that only a post-Oscar show-off would dare attempt - that's pretty perverse. Wasting Sigourney Weaver on an empty-vessel character - perverse. Calling the monsters "Those We Do Not Speak Of" yet never shutting up about them - perverse. Shoving Bryce Dallas Howard's blind girl on a mission through the forbidden woods - really, really perverse. And as for the ending...
Not yet. Because, frustratingly, there's some wonderful stuff here, the first hour constantly flirting with brilliance. The exceptional, unnerving sound design of otherworldly breezes and Baskerville howls. The incomparable Joaquin Phoenix - magnetic, internal, saying everything by barely doing anything. Shyamalan's unsettling appropriation of fairy tale (Little Red Riding Hood), Biblical terror (the Angel of Death) and screen chiller (Blair Witch, The Crucible, countless Hammer horrors). But mostly it's the controlled direction, a slow-brewed dread of half-glimpsed terrors, obstructed views, looming camerawork and jolting orchestralshrieks.
Of course, now we're on to him, the inescapable hitch while watching a Shyamalan movie is that your neck is constantly straining to catch the elusive big twist. Distracting? Just a bit, but at least Shyamalan's smart to it. Too smart, in fact. Playing wise to his audience's expectations by pouring out a net of flapping red herrings (emphasis very much on the red), he takes an almost malicious pleasure in hoodwinking his viewers. The mood might be formidable but the plot's a total prank: a booby-trapped banana skin sitting on a trapdoor. The Village is Shyamalan's best joke yet. Pity about the punchline.
Really, we're talking stinker, groaner, howler... So much so that it makes Signs' Evian-allergic aliens seem positively rational. You might buy it. You might not. Still, gasper or grumbler, it's hard not to feel that what could have been an immersive, enigmatic gothic chiller is undermined by Night's Pavlovian compulsion for deception. Perhaps next time, the best Shyamalan twist should be that there is no twist.