"THE VILLAGE" proves that even a great storyteller like M. Night Shyamalan can fall face-first in his own narrative mud.

This movie about a fear-prone village that believes dangerous creatures lurk in the surrounding woods certainly has its moments. But for the most part, the film's a bewildering disappointment, given the talents of Shyamalan, who gave us "The Sixth Sense," the under-appreciated "Unbreakable" and "Signs." The muse can be fickle. The muse can lead you deep into the woods.

The rural community of Covington, Pa., is surrounded by a fence, lookout towers and, at night, burning torches. We understand this to be 1897, judging by the tombstone that was just erected for another victim of the Creatures Without. The 60 or so residents live in constant fear of the unknown marauders, known to everyone as Those We Do Not Speak Of. The village elders, led by Edward Walker (William Hurt) and August Nicholson (Brendan Gleeson), forbid anyone to go beyond the protected perimeter.

(All the while, there is this dim possibility that the village's insular fears of outside forces might be a not-so-hidden metaphor for America's present foreign and homeland policy. If so, it's a rather lame one indeed.)

Though the beasts remain unseen, they make surprise attacks. And while the villagers huddle in their basements, they attack livestock. The animals are found later, skinned or defeathered, their heads twisted back. Red marks are left on doors.

One man, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) is determined to break the cycle of fear and enter the woods. He is emboldened by his love for Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a blind woman whom he has finally asked to marry him. But, after a series of setbacks best left vague, it is Ivy who makes the bold foray into the terrifying beyond.

This is the best section of the movie: a blind woman determined to make it through the forbidden woods, hacking her way through the brush with a walking stick. She wears a yellow hooded cape because the villagers believe that Those Who Totally Should Not Be Mentioned are provoked by the color red. So in effect, we have "Wait Until Dark" meets Little Yellow Riding Hood. Which is kinda cool. Especially when Ivy hears the guttural roar that she has been dreading. And the sound of pounding feet moving in her direction.

Shyamalan has made an industry of the great twisteroos that shed new light on his murky subjects. But this movie's big revelation doesn't exactly shock like it's supposed to. If anything, it produces a nonchalant shrug. Oh, you'll think. So that's the deal. Now, where did we park the car?

THE VILLAGE (PG-13, 107 minutes) -- Contains overall intensity and violence. Area theaters.

Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, as young lovers, and others in the small village of Covington, Pa., fear what lives beyond their borders.