To the casual observer, the tourists and business types packed into a non-air-conditioned Manhattan bistro on a sweltering summer afternoon wouldn't look like an inspiring cast of characters for a blockbuster thriller. But M. Night Shyamalan, the 34-year-old writer-director of ''The Sixth Sense,'' ''Unbreakable,'' and ''Signs,'' is not a casual observer. He scans the crowd intently, with the wry expression of a con man hunting for a mark. ''Okay,'' he says, ''so there's this lady over there who's having this conversation, right?'' He points to a middle-aged woman at a nearby table who's innocently eating her lunch with her family, unaware she's about to take a trip into the M. Night Zone. ''Now,'' he says, ''imagine that every time that woman looks up, there's a little boy across the room who keeps staring at her. There's some connection between these two that's not normal, right?'' Eyes narrowing, he picks up his fork like he's about to conduct an orchestra with it. ''I'm immediately starting to think of provocative ways to present that story,'' he says. ''I may hold off telling you who that boy is until the last 10 minutes of the movie. In fact, I might make you think something else entirely and be very meticulous to make you think that you've figured it out.'' So who is the boy? Shyamalan hasn't worked all that out yet, but he grins like a kid who's just showed off a magic trick. ''It's fun! It's really fun!''
Hollywood is full of sideshow barkers, enticing audiences with hints of thrills behind the curtain, but Shyamalan has no equal when it comes to the art of the tease. In three consecutive smash hits (well, two and a half, given ''Unbreakable'''s relatively disappointing $95 million gross, compared with $294 million for ''The Sixth Sense'' and $228 million for ''Signs''), he's taken the kinds of subjects once considered the stuff of midnight movies and ''X-Files'' episodes -- a kid who sees ghosts, a reluctant superhero, a family farm attacked by aliens -- and spun them into elegant narrative puzzles with hairpin plot turns and head-snapping endings. At this point, Shyamalan says, the mere mention of his name is enough to start a metabolic reaction in an audience: ''If you say, like, 'The Trap Door': An M. Night Shyamalan Film, there's already something happening, and I haven't told you anything yet.''
Or so he hopes. Shyamalan's next film, ''The Village,'' opens July 30, and aside from his name above the title and some cryptic posters and spooky trailers, audiences have been told precious little about it. The air of secrecy around the film has been, depending on your viewpoint, either tantalizing or irritating, Masonic or Scooby-Doo-ish. What can be revealed without spoiling anything is...um, it was shot on celluloid. Want more? Okay, it's the story of a group of people living in an isolated 19th-century village who are terrorized by mysterious creatures stalking the woods around them. More? It stars Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt, Adrien Brody, Sigourney Weaver, and in a showcase role, newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of director Ron Howard. There's a love triangle (involving Phoenix, Brody, and Howard), loads of creepy imagery (slashes of blood on doors, skinned animals), and some cool Druid-style robes that look like they were modeled off a Led Zeppelin album (see cover). And yes, Virginia, there is a big fat twist -- maybe even more than one.