Summer is over, and with its passing we lay to rest another season of giant blockbusters. In autumn the releases tend to get a little smaller, occasionally a bit smarter, and often a tad spookier.
When the big budget behemoths hibernate, films like A Haunting in Venice shyly make their way into the theaters. But audiences needn’t be shy about visiting them, at least not when they’re at the same quality level as Venice, the latest Kenneth Branagh-led Agatha Christie adaptation (based on her 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party) featuring the famously mustachioed Hercule Poirot.
A Haunting in Venice is smaller in scope when compared to the previous Poirot offerings, Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. This scaled-back approach works to the film’s benefit, as it gives us a more intimate and focused mystery to untangle.
The fact that this film isn’t absolutely stuffed to the gills with household names like Orient Express and Nile were (besides Branagh, the only actors I recognized were Tina Fey and Michelle Yeoh) is actually a good thing. By featuring “smaller” names the movie gives the impression that we are watching actual people instead of a group of pretty people acting like other people.
Is the mystery these characters are subject to smart? Yes, if fairly undemanding and ultimately pretty simple. I was never overwhelmed with quickly rattled off deductions made by a heavily accented Branagh, which was not the case with the previous two films, but I was also never wowed with the mystery itself.
The denouement is perfectly understandable, and I didn’t have any lingering questions after leaving the theater, which was downright refreshing for someone like myself who has to understand the finer points of every plot but still often misses things.
The thing that sets A Haunting in Venice apart is instead how this mystery is presented. As you can probably tell from the title, Venice is much spookier than your typical Agatha Christie adventure, making excellent use of tried-and-true horror tropes while never quite devolving into a straight horror film (I’m usually a wuss with scary movies, but I got through this no problem).
A lot of this success is owed to beautiful visuals and Branagh’s direction, which can only be described as Alfred Hitchcockian — at least when it comes to dynamic shots. He does have a slightly distracting tendency to be a bit too static when filming scenes that are exclusively dialogue, awkwardly focusing on one character at a time in close-up, which sometimes makes it feel like they aren’t actually in the same room as the person they’re talking to.
This slick combination of whodunit and horror makes A Haunting in Venice a must-see for fans of the mystery genre, even those who are scardey cats like me. Because while the scariest thing is always the unknown, you can bet that a guy like Poirot won’t let things be unknown for too long.
A Haunting in Venice is in theaters.