There’s a natural element of horror tied to a good murder mystery. Aside from the obvious homicidal aspects, notions of the unknown, suspicion, motive, terror, and fear cohabitate in the space between mystery and horror. As genres, they may not live in the same haunted house, but they certainly live on the same creepy street.

In this particular instance, the haunted house takes the form of a Venetian palazzo in Kenneth Branagh’s latest Agatha Christie adaptation, A HAUNTING IN VENICE. The film, sourced from Christie’s 1969 novel HALLOWE’EN PARTY, explores literary icon Hercule Poirot (Branagh) in a more vulnerable state than we last left him. Having settled into retirement, he’s beckoned by a friend and author, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), to attend a séance led by a renowned, mysterious medium, Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh). An attempt to contact the departed spirit of grieving, famed soprano Rowena Drake’s (Kelly Reilly) daughter leads to – you guessed it – murder… and everyone’s a suspect.

Being Branagh’s third tackling of an Agatha Christie mystery, A HAUNTING IN VENICE is the first of his series that’s not previously been cinematically adapted. (The novella was adapted as the twelfth episode of AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT and was made into a British radio Broadcast in 1993.) The film boldly shifts the story from London to Venice, allowing for some seldom-tread territory within the horror world. Having been filmed primarily on location, the centuries-old Floating City is a major star of the gorgeously shot film.

Art direction by Susana Codognato, Peter Russell, and Chris Stephenson provide striking visuals with vivid colors. At the same time, cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos utilizes unconventional camera angles and negative space to great effect. The film’s sound design carries it a long way, while a modest but effective score by Hildur Guðnadóttir makes haunting use of woodwinds and strings. Restraint is the name of the game in building this film’s creepy tone – a quality that carries through into its performances… for the most part.

As Poirot, Branagh invites audiences to experience a less certain side of the character. Typically a man deeply rooted in cold, hard facts, he is puzzled by notions of ghosts, possession, and the unknown here. It’s a refreshing take on a character we think we’ve seen before. Tina Fey’s performance as authoress Ariadne Oliver is uneven but enjoyable. She surprises in a couple of more dramatic moments than we’re used to seeing from her and elicits chuckles when appropriate, yet at times delivers lines with all the enthusiasm of a community theatre’s star player. Hints of an attempt at a Mid-Atlantic accent – if that was the intended choice – fall flat. (It’s also nearly impossible to dismiss recollections of an episode of 30 ROCK in which her Liz Lemon takes on a Poirot-esque persona to solve a MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESSian mystery. That, actually, might not be her fault.)

The film’s star players are Camille Cottin and Michelle Yeoh. As housekeeper Olga Seminoff, Cottin bears regret with a carefully measured whisper of holier-than-thou. As the medium central to the story’s development, Michelle Yeoh’s Mrs. Robinson brings confidence and sorrow to the eerie role. Other honorable mentions include Kyle Allen as the departed’s greedy former lover, Maxime Gerard, and Kelly Reilly’s grief-stricken Rowena Drake.

If the film takes a misstep, it’s in its first act, during which a rushed exposition is sped through, and too many poor, cringey attempts at jump scares discredit its innately spooky setting. The film simply doesn’t need them.

Once it catches up with itself, A HAUNTING IN VENICE moves at a suspenseful pace that will keep audiences guessing without planting too many distracting red herrings. It’s a well-told ghost story and a well-told mystery, serving as a perfect, not-too-scary kick-off to spooky season.

A HAUNTING IN VENICE is currently in theaters.

Ricky J Duarte

[He/him/his] Ricky is a writer, actor, and singer. He's also the host of Rick or Treat Horrorcast, a biweekly horror movie podcast. He lives in a super haunted apartment in New York City above a giant, spooky cemetery with his evil cat, Renfield, and the ghosts of reasons he moved to New York in the first place. www.RickOrTreat.com

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