''Even with all the 'Alien' pictures, I never had nightmares,'' says Sigourney Weaver. So it's a tribute to writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's command of spookiness -- the skill that led ''The Sixth Sense,'' ''Unbreakable,'' and ''Signs'' to a combined gross of $1.3 billion -- that just reading his latest script disturbed her sleep for weeks. ''I had to really speak to myself quite sternly,'' she continues, ''because I play a very responsible person who is not supposed to be one of the frightened ones.''
That is, Weaver plays one of the elders of an isolated 19th-century town whose residents are increasingly troubled by a mythical menace out in the woods. As her son, Joaquin Phoenix confronts not only the creatures of the night but also a love story that may just involve Bryce Dallas Howard, the 23-year-old daughter of director Ron Howard, here making her Hollywood debut. The romantic plot, new territory for Shyamalan, is tied to his inspiration, Emily Brontë's ''Wuthering Heights.'' ''I was very taken by that period and the emotion,'' he says. ''I just fell in love with those kind of tones.''
To keep things tonally correct, Shyamalan had a whole village built in Chester County, Pa., and supervised its construction with a Kubrickian eye for detail -- ''the doorknobs, the plates, the kind of glass we were using,'' he says. Before the shoot, he took his cast to a Girl Scout camp in New Jersey for a ''Frontier House'' sort of outing. ''We all lived in these tents and ate communally,'' says Weaver. ''We learned how to weave, how to spin, how to hew logs.... I wasn't one of the ones who had to decapitate a rabbit, for which I am grateful.''
THE GOOD NEWS Weaver's nightmares sound like a dream, and Shyamalan is, maybe, the new master of the twist ending.
THE BAD NEWS We said ''maybe''; one cyberspace fanboy, having supposedly peeked at the screenplay, has written that he correctly guessed the twist just by reading the plot description. ''Uh,'' Shyamalan responds. ''For me, it's just a really straight story.''