M. Night Shyamalan believes in magic -- though perhaps not quite as much as his rabid fans, who often camp outside his Philadelphia house to catch a glimpse of the guy who made the spooky blockbusters "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs."
"People come up to me and say, 'I believe in aliens,' and I may not be able to say exactly that," says the 33-year-old Philly native, whose name (pronounced SHAHM-a-lan) is fast becoming a horror-genre brand to rival Stephen King's.
"But I do believe in believing."
And he's had quite a few weird experiences over the years.
One time, Shyamalan saw a ghostly woman in the window of an empty house. He waved to her; she waved back.
And then there's that 107-minute coincidence.
Though Shyamalan insists it's completely accidental, all of his movies have turned out to be 107 minutes long -- including his latest, the supernatural period piece "The Village," which opens Friday.
"I was sure this one wouldn't be 107 minutes," Shyamalan recalls. "It had a much longer script.
"But then we cut certain things, and when the editors came to tell me how long it was, I was like, Oh my God, don't even tell me -- and it was 107."
But not nearly as weird as what's in "The Village."
The movie takes place in a 19th-century rural Pennsylvania hamlet worthy of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in which the good townsfolk live in fear of "Those We Don't Speak Of," mysterious creatures that live in the woods around them.
Not everyone in the town is satisfied with this situation, of course.
Ignoring the warnings of elders played by Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt, youngsters Joaquin Phoenix (search) and Adrien Brody decide to venture into the forbidden forest along with a very odd and mesmerizing blind girl from the town, played by the 23-year-old newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard, who's the real star of the movie.
Shyamalan even invokes magic when he talks about discovering Howard, whose performance in "The Village" has Hollywood insiders calling her a future star.
"I came along at just the right time in her life," he says. "If I met her a year ago, I wouldn't have hired her.
"That's not just luck."
It's also not nepotism, Shyamalan insists, even though Howard is the daughter of Oscar-winning director Ron Howard.
After Kirsten Dunst turned down the part, Shyamalan offered it to Howard, an NYU theater grad, on the strength of her performance as Rosalind in "As You Like It" at downtown's Public Theater.
Shyamalan went backstage after a performance and offered Howard the part on the spot, then asked for permission to call her father.
"My dad was filming 'The Missing' at the time, and he stopped production to take the call, which he never does," Howard recalls.
"Night said, 'Ron, one day a boy will call to ask for your daughter's hand in marriage, and I know this isn't as important, but I wanted you to know, I just asked Bryce to be in my film.'
"My dad was so excited," Bryce said. "He was telling everyone. People say they've never seen him like that."
Bryce was over the moon, too -- and not just because she had scored such a plum role.
She was also excited to play Phoenix's girlfriend, since she's had a crush on him since he was 12 and filming "Parenthood" with her dad.
"I was 7 then, and he totally didn't remember me," she says.
"But I really remembered him. I ogled over him and thought he was a devastatingly handsome 12-year-old."
Strawberry-blond Howard will get some hearts pounding herself in this movie -- and in her next. She's taking over Nicole Kidman's role in Lars von Trier's "Dogville" sequel, "Mandalay."
"Her face is so innocent and pure," Shyamalan says.
- With Post Wire Services