A Haunting in Venice (2023)

SEPTEMBER 28, 2023


I vaguely knew that Kenneth Branagh was going to make a third in his series of Hercules Poirot movies, all adapted from Agatha Christie’s novels, but I didn’t realize he had already completed it until I saw a trailer one day for what seemed like a Conjuring type of movie about a séance gone wrong with Michelle Yeoh and Tina Fey, only for Branagh and his telltale mustache to show up near the end of the spot, the newest entry in this otherwise horror-free series. And even then I was thinking "Well it's just a weirdly cut trailer for a mystery" only for the title A Haunting in Venice to appear, making it quite clear this was a ghost story. I was so delighted at the reveal! Not too many series can get away with that; it’s not like you’re ever going to see a trailer showcasing a moody Channing Tatum being menaced by vengeful ghosts only for Jonah Hill to pop up and then show 23 Jump Street in big blocky text.

(I’d be fine with that, by the way.)

Anyway, this time around Poirot is retired, but his old pal Ariadne Oliver (Fey, clearly enjoying herself with her period clothing and Hawks-ian quick talk) has roped him into helping her prove that a local psychic (Yeoh) is a fraud after failing to do so on her own. Her pitch is that only the great Poirot can figure this out, and if not, then they have to admit Yeoh is the real deal and ghosts are real. Either way she would have herself a basis for a new book, as after a lengthy successful run of novels based on Poirot’s previous adventures, her last few have flopped (presumably because with Poirot retired she had to come up with her own ideas). It’s a sort of autobiographical touch on Christie’s part, as Christie herself got sick of Poirot but due to his popularity kept him around; it kind of reminded me of how George Romero found himself making so many Dead movies in succession at the end of his career (and life, as it turned out) because he couldn’t get money to do anything else. It must be so rewarding to be an artist!

So Poirot goes to the séance, and quickly figures out some of the tricks, but after (spoiler!) Yeoh is seemingly murdered, he locks everyone inside the house (not too hard with a raging storm outside making the Venice waterways constantly thrashing against the house anyway) and enlists Oliver to interview everyone and figure out who the culprit is. But he keeps being spooked; he hears a child singing a song but no one else can, and later he talks to who he thinks is a little girl who stayed behind at the Halloween party that was held at the house prior to the séance (indeed, the original novel was titled Hallowe’en Party* but then finds a photo of the girl and realizes she’s the long-dead daughter of the current owner (Kelly Reilly). Spooooooky!

Basically the movie goes back and forth throughout its runtime: Poirot and Oliver talk to one of the suspects, they make it pretty clear how they couldn’t possibly be the murderer while also opening up possibilities for one of the others to be the surefire culprit, and then Poirot hears/sees a spooky thing and starts wondering if his whole “no such thing as ghosts” worldview is correct. So it’s kind of talky, and… well I don’t want to spoil things for people who have never seen a movie before, but (spoiler, I guess?) it’s kind of a foregone conclusion that Branagh isn’t going to just up and introduce legit supernatural elements into his classy mystery series, so you know there’s eventually going to be a plausible explanation for everything, but that didn’t bug me. It was kind of an Old Dark House movie in that way, as those pretty much always explained away their seeming ghosts and goblins as parlor tricks, but didn’t make them any less fun.

And the real draw is seeing him figure out the mystery, and unlike some of Christie’s other novels (like And Then There Were None) it’s not impossible to do so. That said, I looked at a synopsis for her book (I haven’t read this one myself) and it seemed Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green barely used the original story, borrowing only a couple of character names (sometimes to odd effect; Yeoh’s character of Joyce Reynolds is a 13 year old girl in the novel) and the Halloween night setting. It also didn’t have the séance or any supernatural concepts, so no wonder they changed the title too while they were at it since it’s a pretty lousy adaptation if still considered one at all. But that’s fine; the central mystery of “Who killed Joyce?” paves the way to other mysteries involving blackmail, a secret alliance between two characters, and (again, minor spoiler) the real cause of the so-called ghosts Poirot is seeing, so you’re constantly treated to reveals as opposed to a simple “That person killed her, the end” kind of third act. Even when you think all the culprits have been identified, Poirot reveals he’s figured out another mystery that we didn’t even realize was happening! It’s delightful. Maybe not as cinematically satisfying as watching a dozen A-listers stabbing the hell out of Johnny Depp, but perfectly enjoyable all the same.

It is weird that he went so far off book though considering how faithful the previous two entries (Orient Express and Death on the Nile) were, at least with regards to the mystery (Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot himself was the biggest alteration), but maybe after two movies where he ended up casting people that got canceled in the interim (Depp in the first, Armie Hammer in the second) maybe he thought he was cursed and had to do something drastic to avoid it happening again. Luckily for him and all of us, Jamie Dornan hasn’t assaulted anyone or said anything racist, so phew! (I love Dornan for the record; if you haven’t seen Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar yet, please fix that.). It’s also a smaller seeming film than those; the whole “all-star cast” approach has been seriously reduced (I’ve mentioned the five big names; the other half dozen or so characters are played by folks you might only vaguely recognize at best – nothing against their acting talent of course, just their fame level) and the majority of the movie takes place in a house as opposed to a lavish train or boat. I wonder if he got a budget from the studio first and then decided which book to use? I mean to be fair, Nile lost money so he’s lucky he got another one at all, but it almost seems like the approach was designed to set itself apart from the others entirely.

So it can be a little overly talky and will likely let down huge fans of the first two films since the lavishness and glamor have been so scaled down, but ‘tis the season and all, so if you just want a proper Old Dark House kind of movie with modern production value, it’s a solid choice. It’s the sort of thing I can see myself putting on some October (or September; I start early) night in a year or two with a cup of cocoa and a blanket, dozing off halfway through with a tiny smile on my face. I realize that I end up watching a lot of the same movies every spooky season: the Vincent Price stuff, Night of the Living Dead, the Amicus anthologies… nothing too loud since I watch them late at night, nothing too gruesome as the intent is to lull me to sleep with its cozy familiarity. That limits how many newer films I can add to that collection; putting on a Saw sequel or even one of the more recent Halloween films doesn’t quite have the same charm, and besides I can see that sort of thing in theaters (indeed, tomorrow I’m seeing Saw X!). For when I just want to relax at the end of the day with seasonally appropriate repeat viewings, this is the sort of movie that fits that odd little niche, and it’s always nice to have another.

What say you?

* The new title allows them to do another creepy version of Poirot if this one’s successful enough. A Haunting in Venice 2: Ghosts of Genoa, perhaps?)


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