It’s no surprise that Hollywood would choose to head back to the Agatha Christie well and dredge up yet another haunting film. By our count there have been nearly 50 film adaptations of her chilling novels. If you count TV, graphic novels, and video games — yes, video games — you’re well in to the hundreds.
While all her novels have a dark and twisted foundation, few dabble in the world of horror and the occult. The large majority of her films are well trafficked in murder, mystery, mayhem, and deceit, but few really dive into the deep end of the horror pool.
A Haunting in Venice is based on her 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party, which was largely panned and considered to be the works of a literary giant on the decline. Though the book is not set in Venice, and while there are a series of other liberties that Hollywood took to get the film to the big screen, it does not distract from the fact that A Haunting of Venice is a pretty decent gateway horror film. To be sure, it is lower case “h” horror, but a horror film nonetheless.
The film follows the plucky mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) who is the great Hercule Poirot’s friend and a crime novelist. She becomes convinced that a mysterious medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), truly has the ability to connect with the afterlife. So convinced, she seeks out the help of her good friend, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh), to debunk this psychic charlatan.
Poirot tentatively agrees to assist her by participating in a Halloween seance, in Venice, in the middle of a dark and stormy night. All the old-timey horror tropes are laid bare for a popcorn chomping feast — including a…MURDER! Naturally, it wouldn’t be a Agatha Christie/Hercule Poirot mashup with a murder. Did you really think there wasn’t going to be a murder?
Oliver and Poirot set out to determine why someone would murder the mysterious medium Joyce Reynolds and why the decided to do it on such a dark and stormy night. If you know anything about Agatha Christie film adaptations there are interrogations, lots and lot of interrogations. The film eventually becomes a paint-by-numbers affair as Poirot transitions from one hyper-obscure clue to the next.
Full Hollywood backing and an A-list cast help to cover up the bumps and blemishes of a film that seems a little incomplete and too beholden to its PG-13 rating. Which is not to say it’s not a good film. A Haunting in Venice is really well crafted, and from a cinematography perspective, contained some fascinating angles, effects, and beautifully concocted practical effects. Not to mention, the aerial footage of Venice would make even Rick Steves blush.
However, the film falters on several fronts, including the aforementioned hyper-convoluted story, a peculiar plot device involving psychedelic honey that’s not mentioned in Hallowe’en Party, and the fact they never really lean into the great comedic talents of Tina Fey. She cops a fast-paced transatlantic cadence, but beyond that there’s no real comedy. Also disappointing is the great Michelle Yeoh, playing the part of the mysterious medium, who is killed fairly early in the film.
Make no mistake, Kenneth Branagh, is one heck of an actor that truly embodies the Hercule Poirot character — maybe even more so than the great Peter Ustinov. Yet the film is a fairly staid and tepid murder mystery. If you’re looking for a wonderful gateway Halloween flick to scare some life into your tween or your scaredy cat partner, then A Haunting in Venice is it. You won’t be quaking in your boots, but you’ll have a mighty fine night out at the theater.
A Haunting in Venice is PG-13 and in theaters everywhere.