There’s something comforting about an old-fashioned murder mystery. You’ve got a colorful cast of characters, an intrepid detective, a puzzling premise, and the guarantee of a satisfying ending. It’s why Agatha Christie became a literary phenomenon and the reason starry murder mystery films helped form the backbone of the film industry. But somewhere along the line, the starry ensemble movie fell out of fashion — considered too predictable and generic to justify itself.
However, over the past few years, the murder mystery has crept back into pop culture’s good graces. It might be because when the world becomes more unpredictable and chaotic than ever, audiences want to flock to the comfortable predictability of a detective story. Or maybe it’s because of the enduring appeal of a silly little guy in a mustache. Whatever the case, no movie franchise has nailed the old-fashioned satisfaction of watching a silly mustache guy solve mysteries more than Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot series.
With 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and 2022’s Death on the Nile, Branagh perfected the fluffy, entertaining mid-budget ensemble movie. So it’s natural that with his third Poirot movie, Branagh would mix up the formula. A Haunting in Venice is still fluffy, entertaining, and pleasingly predictable; but this time, it’s all a bit spookier. With the moody, borderline gothic Haunting in Venice, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green add a little haunted house horror into the murder mystery, while retaining the satisfying joys of seeing Poirot solve the case.
A Haunting in Venice opens with Poirot (Branagh) retired from the detective life. He’s holed himself away in a Venice villa, avoiding the long queues of fans who eagerly ask for his help. He’s even hired a bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio, humorously stoic) to keep them at bay. But Poirot is brought out of his self-imposed exile by the arrival of an old acquaintance, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, doing her best Girl Friday, but coming across as slightly left of an SNL impression).
Ariadne is determined to debunk a celebrated medium, Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh, charming and cryptic), and needs Poirot’s help to do so, bringing him to a séance held at the palazzo of famed opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly, mysteriously fragile) on All Hallow’s Eve. But the séance unearths suspicions of foul play, kicking off a series of deaths that can be traced back to the apparent suicide of Rowena’s troubled daughter, and the ghostly visions she experienced. Poirot must solve the cold case before any more die — and before he can be consumed by his own visions of the ghosts that appear to haunt the old palazzo.
Based on Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe'en Party, A Haunting in Venice makes a marked departure from the original story. While the ensemble cast gets filled out by your typical batch of suspects — including a frazzled family doctor (Jamie Dornan), Mrs. Reynolds’ two crafty assistants (Emma Laird and Ali Khan), and a far-too precocious child (Jude Hill) — Green takes enough creative license with the story to keep the audience on their toes.
This is not just your typical drawing-room murder. This one takes place in a crumbling, decrepit palazzo whose shifting rooms house the angry ghosts of those who died within them. With this haunted-house element, Green’s script adds some paranoia to Poirot’s typically studied air. This time he’s shaken and a little uncertain about the rules of the world. Branagh does his part to amplify this paranoia, shooting the film almost exclusively in Dutch angles, extreme high and low angles, and with unsettling fish-eye lenses. The result is the most ambiguous of Branagh and Green’s Poirot films, one that has the audience questioning alongside Poirot whether something supernatural is truly at work.
And it’s incredibly effective. A Haunting in Venice has a handful of genuine jump scares, while the gothic atmosphere and ghostly visions work their way under your skin until you almost forget Poirot will most likely save the day. It’s aided by Branagh’s always-delightful performance as a Poirot who seems markedly more haunted this time around — if not by the ghosts of the children who were rumored to have died in the old orphanage that used to stand in the palazzo’s location, then by some past action or misdeed.
A Haunting in Venice never does explain why the famed detective went into early retirement, but it’s better off with its vague allusions. A more dedicated viewer might peruse the past two Poirot movies to discern some reason the detective seems so troubled, but these movies are made purely for casual viewers. A Haunting in Venice’s rock-solid script gives them all they need to know: Poirot is retired, he’s wary of being brought back into the game, but he’s also really good at what he does. And there’s nothing more satisfying than watching a haunted shell of a man put himself back together to become the mustachioed detective we know and love.