By Cody Dericks
In honor of Halloween, I’ll be exploring five underappreciated horror films throughout the month of October. This week, I’m making the case for why you should watch M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village.” Check out my previous article on “Lake Mungo.”
As much as writers and directors probably don’t want to admit it, many outside factors can impact the reception of a film besides its actual quality. The public opinion of a performer or current event can profoundly affect a film’s perception, whether positively or negatively. For M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 thriller, “The Village,” a combination of misleading marketing and a growing weariness with the director’s style had unfortunate consequences on the movie’s future. But put all that extraneous detritus aside and you’ll find a chilling and beautiful story that says more about our world than we might care to admit.
Audiences of 2004 went into “The Village” expecting another supernatural-themed thriller from the man who had made “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” If those films (plus his not quite scary but certainly thrilling “Unbreakable”) were any indication, “The Village” would be a frightening ride with an inevitable twist that would get filmgoers talking. The marketing certainly aided in this expectation, with the trailers and posters all seeming to promise a spooky time at the movies. So, when they instead found a contemplative and melodramatic film with some easily-explained fantastical elements, they were, mostly, understandably let down. And except for a few vocal defenders, the film has mostly been relegated by cinephiles to the “disappointments” section of Shyamalan’s career.
Again, it’s easy to see why audiences were disappointed by “The Village.” The film is slow and light on genuine scares, even before the screenplay’s infamous double twists are revealed. It follows the inhabitants of a 19th-century, self-sustained village who have set up home in a Pennsylvania valley surrounded by woods. Their life is fairly picturesque except for one important factor: the woods are home to a race of monstrous creatures referred to by the villagers as “Those We Don’t Speak Of.” A tenuous bargain exists between them and the villagers: stay out of the woods and the creatures will not enter the village. The film centers on Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard in a stunning early performance), the blind daughter of the village’s Chief Elder (William Hurt), as she navigates the perils of love and her encroaching adulthood. The lives of her and her neighbors are increasingly unsettled by the growing conflict between themselves and the creatures as it appears the agreement between the two clans has been broken. When tragedy strikes, it’s up to Ivy to venture through the woods into the world outside of their sequestered village.
Sounds like a fun time, right? Well, what audiences didn’t know was that the deepest secrets of “The Village” come from stripping the story of any of its fantastical or supernatural elements. The film reveals the truths behind the titular village in two key moments. First, it’s revealed to Ivy by her father that the creatures are, as he puts it, “a farce.” There are no creatures at all. The woods are uninhabited and “Those We Don’t Speak Of” are merely the village elders in costume. All of the rituals and traditions meant to ward them off and keep the agreement are merely ways for the elders to keep their families cloistered in the village. The elders come from the outside world, and they know the dangers of their fellow man. Second, once Ivy makes it out of the woods and finds herself face-to-face with an outsider for the first time, we quickly learn that the film is not, in fact, a period piece, but instead takes place in the then-modern day of the mid-2000s. Not only were the elders afraid of the real world, they felt that the only way to keep their families safe was to raise them believing they lived in a “simpler” time. The elders all met sometime in the late 1970s at a grief counseling clinic, having each gone through their own tragic loss. It’s fair to say that these twists rob the narrative of any of the horror that was promised to moviegoers. But instead, I find that they bring a new and unexpected layer of cautionary horror to the story that is even more applicable to our modern world.
A common complaint about the twists is that they are disappointing because they reveal plans that are unsustainable in the world of the film. There’s no way the elders can keep this ruse up forever. I find this to actually be indicative of the short-sighted thinking that the film is skewering. The movie knows that the elders’ plan is illogical and, frankly, silly. It’s a parable about the dangers of absolute authority thinking they know what’s best. In wanting to avoid the horrors of the real world, the elders instead crafted their own world ruled entirely by fear. Essentially, they wish their children to believe that they are living in a scary story without the context to know that their lives don’t have to be filled with a seemingly essential and constant worry. Further selling this point is the fact that this village is a utopia of limited scale: the inhabitants are all seemingly white, straight, and cisgender. To the elders, this is the default way that they see the world. They put a limited scope on what kind of people are welcome in the village and rewound the clock to a time that was simpler and more peaceful only to people who looked like them. In addition, it’s made clear that Ivy’s father is a man of considerable wealth and power, and his anthropological experiment would not be possible without the privileges that come with such a lofty societal position. Instead of using his money and connections to make the world a better place after losing a loved one to the violent modern world, he chose to self-isolate and only try to make better the lives of those most like him. The story is a shockingly strong damnation of poorly used privilege – the horror of the film is revealed to truly come from the misuse and abuse of authority. This is applicable to any number of power-based occasions in our real world; at the time of the film’s release, it could have been seen as a critique of the post-9/11 rise in blatant xenophobia and white nationalism, when whiteness once again became considered the default American viewpoint in an effort to return to a “simpler” time. Looking at it through a 2020 lens, the story can be used as a warning against the worshipful trust of those who wield penal and judicial authority and purport to know what’s best for all. Horror has always been one of the most effective social critiques, and “The Village” is no different.
Beyond the chillingly effective story, the film is undeniably handsomely crafted. The titular village was entirely built for the film and it’s a stunning piece of design that’s accurate yet beautiful. It’s also masterfully shot by living legend Roger Deakins who uses his camera to subtly accentuate the themes of the film even before they are all apparent to the audience. Oftentimes during a pivotal scene, the camera will float away from important action and come to rest on something stationary and unrelated – in this story of people in power controlling what those below them see and experience, Deakins’s camera does the same to us by guiding our vision away from the sometimes-upsetting things we are witnessing and finding something neutral for us to look at. He also makes limited use of handheld cameras, reserving it for moments of extreme anxiety and fear in a way that increases tension by making the audience feel unsteady. And underlining the entire film is James Newton Howard’s violin-heavy score. It’s beautiful and mournful, straying away from typical horror movie music stings in favor of haunting themes. It’s so good that, even with the movie’s lackluster reception, it still managed to receive a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Original Score.
All this is not to say that “The Village” is flawless. There’s some admittedly wooden dialogue and an unfortunately questionable performance from Adrien Brody as a young man with a nameless developmental disability. But I find the way it hides the true horror at its center under the guise of a traditional scary story to be extremely effective. With its somber tone and autumnal look, it’s the perfect movie to watch around this time of year.
Have you seen “The Village?” What do you think of it? What horror movies are you watching for this year’s Halloween? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Cody and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @codymonster91