Unlike Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, A Haunting in Venice is a title that even the most diehard Agatha Christie fans won’t recognize. That’s because the book’s original title was Hallowe’en Party. It was admittedly wise of Kenneth Branagh to change the name, as audiences might’ve wandered in expecting a Michael Myers flick. The title isn’t the only element that gets tweaked in this adaptation. For starters, the book took place in England rather than Venice. The new setting not only helps to distinguish the film from its source material, but also from Branagh’s previous cracks at Hercule Poirot.
While his tenure as Poirot had been mostly episodic, Branagh has done a commendable job at giving the character an arc. Death on the Nile left Poirot on an uncertain note. A Haunting in Venice sees Poirot regrow his mustache, although he’s left crime-solving in the past. Just when Poirot thinks he’s out, Tina Fey pulls him back in. Fey goes from Only Murders in the Building to playing Ariadne Oliver, a novelist who has found the inspiration for her next book. Not Poirot, but Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium who supposedly possesses a link to the dead.
Poirot is naturally skeptical, although Oliver convinces him to attend a Halloween party to see Reynolds’ gifts in action. It’s only a matter of time until a body shows up with everybody other than Poirot being a suspect. This includes a ghost who may or may not be haunting the house. Branagh once again assembles a first-rate ensemble, from Kelly Reilly as a grieving mother to Jamie Dornan as a doctor who could use a psychiatrist. Branagh and Dornan aren’t the only Belfast alumni. Young Jude Hill gives another superb performance as a precocious child who rivals only Poirot in the witticism department.
Like Branagh’s previous two Poirot pictures, A Haunting in Venice can lag in its mid-section as our hero conducts interviews and gathers clues. Although well-acted as always, these scenes can grow repetitive with little action breaking up the dialogue. What separates this film from its predecessors is its gothic ambiance. Branagh trades the sunny landscapes of Egypt for a candle-lit mansion crawling with masked guests and maybe a supernatural guest. Branagh keeps the film mostly grounded in reality, but he leaves some room for ambiguity when it comes to the paranormal.
While the production design and cinematography get us through a somewhat slow second act, A Haunting in Venice delivers in its grand finale. The mystery is ultimately a compelling one with twists upon twists that add up. The cast is well-balanced with nobody feeling over or underutilized. Of all the Poirot movies, this is the one that warrants a rewatch come Halloween. In that sense, the film honors the source material while still turning in something unique. At this point, it’d be easy for Branagh to recycle the same formula. Even if A Haunting in Venice isn’t without its familiar beats, it stands out with a darker tone, compelling new characters, and a guessing game that’ll have you twirling your mustache with intrigue… assuming you have a mustache.