Director/lead actor Kenneth Branagh leans unabashedly into the macabre in his latest Agatha Christie adaptation, A Haunting in Venice. His renowned detective Hercule Poirot is drawn out of retirement and into a nightmarish scene: a series of murders at a reputedly-haunted Venetian palazzo, on Halloween night (while a tempest rages without), following an unnerving seance. There are jump scares, moldering skeletons, ghostly apparitions (perhaps hallucinated), and moments of grisly violence–including a plunging impalement that puts one in mind of The Omen. At first, this might all seem a terrible bastardization of the source material, a move too far afield from the gentility of Christie’s mystery novels and their typical English-countryside milieu. The strong emphasis on horror shouldn’t work in this particular case, but it does.
Branagh’s film enfolds its audience in its lushly atmospheric central locale; an effective sense of claustrophobia is created as the viewer is trapped alongside the characters within the creepy, shadow-swathed, storm-ravaged palazzo. Rational explanation vs. (seemingly) spectral vengeance makes for an engrossing conflict, one that A Haunting in Venice overtly thematizes (Poirot’s staunch nonbelief in the otherworldly leads to a quite interesting character arc for the detective). The supernatural/fakery debate is as old as the Gothic genre itself, and that’s what Branaugh has furnished a prime example of here: the cinematic equivalent of a classic Gothic novel. Agatha Christie by way of Ann Radcliffe.
If there is one drawback to the film, it’s that the murder-mystery element proves insufficiently baffling. Certain passing references scream out to be recognized as key clues. Without having read the original Christie novel Hallowe’en Party, I guessed the murderer long before the climactic reveal. I’m no Poirot, but have watched enough mysteries to know not to trust an unlikely suspect. When the wavering finger of suspicion conspicuously failed to point at a specific character, my attention was focused in exactly that direction. A more elaborate employment of red herrings would have strengthened the plot of this hardly-lengthy (107 minutes) film.
A Haunting in Venice does not present as satisfactorily complex a mystery as the preceding Christie adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile), but succeeds as a visually lavish Gothic thriller. Haunting in all the best ways, the film makes for the perfect viewing to kick off the Halloween season.