Almost seven years ago, Murder on the Orient Express provided audiences with their first taste of Kenneth Branagh as Agatha Christie’s beloved, mustachioed detective. A few years later, Death on the Nile would confirm the films’ franchise status and, for better or worse, cement some of the series’ signatures—most notably, its hefty budgets, star-studded casts and heavy-handed VFX landscapes. A Haunting in Venice, the third installment of Branagh’s Hercule Poirot series is here to prove an age-old expression: Third time’s the charm.
In this very loose adaptation of Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, the Who is Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), the fatigued Belgian sleuth who has traded in his days of solving the world’s greatest mysteries in favor of quiet isolation. The What is an enthusiastic invitation from novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) to an eerie Halloween séance, a gathering that leaves one of its attendees dead and is just bewildering enough to bring the stubborn Poirot out of retirement. The When and Where is 1947 Venezia, in a decaying palazzo rumored to be haunted by the spirits of vengeful orphans. And the Why—well, that’s what they’re all dying to figure out.
Of the Poirot trilogy, A Haunting in Venice is undoubtedly the best crafted and most enjoyable film to watch. What makes A Haunting in Venice stand out against its predecessors? First and foremost, it’s Branagh’s decision to do away with heavily CGI’d landscapes and instead shoot on location in gorgeous Venetian locales, including the Laguna Veneta, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Scala Contarini del Bovolo and Rio di Palazzo. Distracting VFX no longer cheapens the overall viewing experience, the use of real locations proving vital in grounding the film’s larger-than-life detective story and creating its overwhelming sense of dread.
In its first act, A Haunting in Venice takes its time establishing its gothic tone, favoring quiet shots of its chilling yet beautiful post-war Italian city and the uninviting labyrinths of dark, blue water that hold it hostage. Throughout the film, Venice’s iconic canals become a character of their own, violently crashing into the palazzo’s gates, as if echoing the cries of the dead children who supposedly haunt it.
In addition to the personification of its city, Venice’s strongest attribute lies in the way it uses non-narrative elements to accentuate its story, as opposed to relying solely on Christie’s narrative to create suspense. Throughout its 107-minute runtime, Branagh’s stylish direction choices and Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography build an ominous atmosphere, one perfect for the unraveling of its puzzle-like narrative. Jarring Dutch angles, extreme wide lens and shaky tracking shots all communicate a sense of mystery and distress. Most notably, A Haunting in Venice’s bold shift in genre works to heighten Hallowe’en Party’s mysteries.
Where the previous films fall neatly under the mystery-thriller label, A Haunting in Venice uses the language of horror to speak its classic whodunnit tropes into existence. In Venice, horror staples like the jumpscare and the steady build of musical score startle us, keeping us on our toes with a constant dance of anticipation, pay-off and release. The seance sequence is particularly triumphant in using both diegetic sound and Michelle Yeoh’s engrossing performance as Joyce Reynolds, the mysterious medium who performs the ritual, to produce a sense of anxiety and physical unease. Here, the sudden clicks of a typewriter and the voice of a dead girl work in tandem to mystify viewers. Are we really witnessing a supernatural phenomenon? Or simply the work of a con artist?
It’s these questions that trouble the great Poirot throughout much of the film. Murder on the Orient Express, through its multiple murders and the emotional motive to kill, presented a challenge to our understanding of right and wrong—to our understanding of what true justice is. Now, A Haunting in Venice wants us to ask: Can we be logical people and still believe in the presence of something otherworldly? Where do ghosts and spirits fit into our natural world, if at all? It’s these larger themes, these ever-relevant questions, that highlight Venice’s attempt to be something more than a blind adaptation.
These more existential ideas, however, alongside the film’s newfound horror leanings, make it difficult for its filmmakers to place the occasional comedic moment. There are times where laughs feel misplaced within the horror sequences; lines like, “Come to New York and I’ll get you a hot dog,” feel a little too silly for the film’s darker tone. It’s in moments like these where we feel tension between the lighthearted approach of the previous films and the “serious” horror-mystery-drama Venice wants to be and, mostly, succeeds in being.
If you don’t mind overlooking a couple misplaced jokes in the name of creepy whodunnit fun, A Haunting in Venice is for you. It’s certainly not a perfect movie—nor the best genre-bending murder-mystery to come out in the last year (I’m looking at you, Rian Johnson)—but it’s without doubt the most visually and thematically interesting work of Branagh’s Poirot series thus far. And for an Agatha Christie fan looking for some in-theater amusement this weekend, that’s more than enough.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Kelly Reilly, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Riccardo Scamarcio, Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin
Release Date: September 15, 2023
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic, and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste Magazine, Film Cred, or Kathymichellechacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry, or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.