By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
Now that it’s September, the Halloween season is officially upon us. That means get ready with decorations, candy, and horror films to watch to celebrate the spooky season. There are plenty of spooky theatrical outings coming out over the next few weeks, such as another Saw sequel, The Exorcist: Believer, and Five Nights at Freddy’s (plus the entire Fantastic Fest in just a few weeks). One of the first spooky stories to be told on the big screen this season is A Haunting in Venice, an interesting genre mashup that combines the whodunnit with horror to create an eery, atmospheric mystery thriller.
A Haunting in Venice is the follow up to two other Agatha Christie adaptations from star/director Kenneth Branagh. The first two turned some of the author’s most famous and well known stories into feature films, but the latest in this franchise is a little different from that. It’s an adaption of a lesser known Poirot mystery titled “Hallowe’en Party,” and one that features some significant changes from the book. The film follows expert sleuth Poirot, now retired and living in Italy, as he is sucked back into the world of death and mystery during a Halloween party. After a guest dies under some mysterious circumstances, Poirot is tasked with finding out who did it, or perhaps *what* did it. Other attendees are convinced that the haunted house they chose to spend the night in truly is filled with evil spirits, and it was they who began to pick off the living one by one.
If that sounds like a horror movie, that’s because it truly is. Director Branagh fully commits to the horror genre throughout, even including some surprisingly well executed jump scares. This is by no means your average whodunnit murder mystery. Rather, it’s one that exists completely in two separate, and usually distinct, genres. The horror elements are some of the best aspects of the entire film, too. Branagh directs the scares with a real sense of purpose, allowing the audience to get closer to the characters and, therefore, more affected by every ghost sighting. These days, it can be hard to actually scare audiences as viewers have become so accustomed to the usual tricks of a filmmaker directing a story such as this. Branagh does manage to produce some frightening moments here though, not only with the jump scares but through the spooky Halloween atmosphere he evokes throughout.
Branagh’s masterful directing and cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos shrouding the film in darkness and shadows create a palpable atmosphere, one that becomes even more effective with calculated production design. The layout of the haunted house that serves as the film’s setting is easy to understand, which is always an important part of a one-location story such as this, and there’s a combination of 1940s style with a classic yet creepy European design. Everything is dimly lit too, which adds to the charm of this story being one that takes place on a stormy Halloween night.
Amidst all of that is the story of a dead guest, and one who was (predictably) not very popular with the other members of the party. In that regard, the film follows the tropes of a classic whodunnit, with the death of a disagreeable victim that seemingly could have been committed by any of the ensemble cast. A Haunting in Venice largely succeeds in this way as well, as the mystery is compelling as it is unpredictable. It also blends in naturally with the horror aspects of the story, which allows for the film to feel cohesive throughout.
Part of the success of the mystery is also down to the ensemble cast, who play their roles with such conviction that it keeps the audience guessing as to who the real killer is. Tina Fey is arguably the most prominent of the supporting actors, and she brings Agatha Christie’s famous character Ariadne Oliver to life. Oliver is depicted a little more self-interested than she is in Christie’s original books, but Fey manages to evoke the sort of wit, ambition, and banter Christie imbues the character with in her novels. Jamie Dornan also stars as a disturbed doctor, who has PTSD following the events of World War II. Dornan reteams with his Belfast director Branagh in a disappointingly limited role here. Overall though, this third Poirot film from Branagh feels better cast than the last outing, with an ensemble that is noticeably less problematic than the previous entry.
The biggest flaw of A Haunting in Venice is the conclusion of the mystery. Without spoilers, the main plot comes to a close relatively abruptly, and it feels as if the story could have been dragged out a bit longer in order to flesh out the characters and keep the audience guessing even more. When it does end, it does so with the classic set up – Poirot, the lead detective, gathers all of the suspects in a room and then explains exactly what happened and who did it. This big resolution doesn’t feel quite as earned as the reveals in Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, again because of the rather abrupt suspension of an engaging suspenseful murder mystery.
A Haunting in Venice succeeds not only as a whodunnit mystery story, but a horror film as well. The combination of these two very different genres proves to be a successful one here, especially with calculated direction from Kenneth Branagh. Despite a resolution to the central mystery that comes too quickly and feels unearned, the latest Hercule Poirot mystery is a perfect watch this Halloween season.