Directed by M Night Shyamalan, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Bryce Dallas Howard, William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Adrien Brody and Brendan Gleeson.

Audiences looking for a thriller to out-twist 'The Sixth Sense', 'Unbreakable' and 'Signs' won't find it in M Night Shyamalan's latest. Even for this normally obtuse viewer, the climax to 'The Village' didn't come as a surprise - but it did not detract from my enjoyment of this atmospheric, well-crafted film.

The village of the title is a close-knit community in the pre-industrial wilds of Pennsylvania. It is isolated from the rest of the world by encircling woods, which are inhabited by mysterious monsters. To keep these creatures at bay, the villagers have devised an elaborate series of customs and rituals - watchtowers and lit torches, orange cloaks and animal offerings - and anything red, "the forbidden colour", must be buried.

The village was founded and is ruled by a distinguished group of elders including Edward Walker (Hurt), Alice Hunt (Weaver) and August Nicholson (our own Brendan Gleeson). To venture into the woods, a villager needs permission that the elders refuse to grant, even when Alice's son, Lucius (Phoenix), offers to travel to the den of iniquity that the villagers call "the towns" for medicine. Theirs is designed to be a utopian society, yet it is also a life of repressed desires and secrets and the one person who hides nothing is the feeble-minded Noah Percy (Brody).

Despite the climate of fear engendered by the threat from the monsters, the gently developing love affair between the silent Lucius and Edward's blind daughter, Ivy (Howard), is at the centre of the story.

Shyamalan builds tension and mood from strong performances, particularly that of Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of film director Ron Howard, in her first major film role. Howard is astonishingly assured as the blind, headstrong Ivy, who, like Little Red Riding Hood (albeit in a saffron yellow hood) ventures into the woods for her beloved.

Although the script can descend to downright silliness at times and, like other of Shyamalan's films, runs out of steam well before the film does, The Village' is permeated with an unmistakable air of dread. Together with Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (who worked such visual magic on 'House of Sand and Fog'), Shyamalan brilliantly evokes the mysterious menace lurking in the woods, helped in no small way by an eerie score from James Newton Howard.

Despite some stumbles along the way, it is to Shyamalan's credit that the parable of isolationism and authority that lurks beneath the surface of 'The Village' is not easily forgotten. There's more depth here than in your typical cineplex thriller.

Caroline Hennessy