Who says movies for grown folks are dead? Kenneth Branagh has practically brought them back singlehandedly with his series of Agatha Christie adaptations, in which he directs and stars as iconic detective Hercule Poirot. Utilizing a simple formula of a central murder mystery and an all-star cast of suspects, Branagh has capitalized on the popularity of whodunnits better than anyone. And the streak continues with his third movie, A Haunting in Venice, which dares to add a supernatural horror component to a steady concoction.
It’s a risky gamble tempting the horror crowd. And to be fair, fans of that genre may find the film lacking in genuine scares and gore. But what they’ll find is a chilling atmoshere and spine-tingling developments for Poirot himself, which goes a long way in making up the difference. Having previously adaptated well-known Christie novels Murder On the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the choice of 1969’s Hallowe’en Party, a much lesser known title, brings with it a touch of unpredictability that screenwriter Michael Green pushes a bit further.
The story finds Poirot retired from sleuthing and living in Venice, turning down literally dozens of potential clients every day with a rather aggressive bodyguard. Poirot is struggling to find ways to fill his days, growing bored in the process. But his boredom doesn’t last long. Tina Fey plays Poirot’s friendly rival, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, who tries to wake him from his stupor with a puzzle she just can’t crack. On a stormy Halloween night, she invites him to the supposedly haunted mansion home of Rowena Drake (Yellowstone‘s Kelly Reilly), a former opera star who is hosting a party for troubled local children. Afterwards, there will be seance led by the famous medium Joyce Reynolds, played by Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All At Once star Michelle Yeoh. Poirot is being brought there to figure out her tricks, and if her reported ability to speak with the dead is real or just another fake.
Of course, there is a murder that kicks things off. Poirot locks down the joint so that nobody can leave, and begins to start picking apart the suspects. But there’s something more afoot this time. Poirot is a man of facts and things he can prove, but he finds his belief shaken as things begin to go bump in the night, and he starts seeing things that shouldn’t be there. Has this man of action suddenly begun to find his faith again? Or will the common actions of man rob him of it once more?
Branagh has done an excellent job of carefully selecting his cast for each film. Every face is recognizable enough to be a draw on their own, but they all bring something specific to the table. The A-list cast of red herrings this time includes a reunion of Branagh’s Belfast stars Jamie Dornan and young co-star Jude Hill; Stillwater actress Camille Cottin, and more. So the wattage is considerably lower this time, but no less effective. Fey is particularly useful at lightening up the gloomy, oppressive mood. Even at their best, these movies can come across a bit stodgy and overly theatrical, which is something that can be said for much of Branagh’s career work, but Fey is always ready with a joke or a snappy quip that twists Poirot’s mustache.
Yeoh follows up her Oscar-winning turn playing a character who is talked up to be a larger-than-life figure, but doesn’t actually got a lot of screen time. While Yeoh makes the most of it with an enigmatic performance that skirts the line enough to have you questioning the medium’s true intensions. Is she a visionary psychic or a charlatan? Or possibly both?
But this is Branagh’s show, and it doesn’t matter how many superstars are in the ensemble. If this Poirot is slightly downbeat compared to Branagh’s previous portrayals, it’s for a reason. Poirot is not at the height of his investigative powers, and faced with the potential that everyone skulking around that old haunted house isn’t of the living. How does one go about arresting a ghost, anyway? Reteamed with Thor cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, Branagh utilizes more close-ups than ever of Poirot’s shocked visage, his mustache upturned almost comically. Together, Branagh and his DP do a fantastic job of keeping the candle-lit surroundings as shadowy and ominous as possible.
Even so, this isn’t among Christie’s most clever stories to serve as source material. The mystery itself is pretty easy to pick apart, the suspect easily discovered. Another problem is that it relies a lot on characters divulging tons of information about themselves all at once, which when combined with the slow pace and dark tone can be a drag. Jump scares help to break up the mood but don’t offer a lot of shock value. Your investment will largely depend on your interest in Poirot as he battles his way back to peak analytical prowess.
Who knows how long Branagh plans to keep these Christie adaptations going. He could seemingly do them forever, bringing back past stars and serving up a fresh batch of celebrity suspects. A Haunting in Venice keeps solving the case, offering a fun, Gothic ghost story that will keep you on your toes and should be a treat to seek out this Halloween.
A Haunting in Venice opens in theaters on September 15th.