The Stew Review: A Haunting In Venice delivers classic spooky scares with precision, style

Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in A Haunting In Venice.
Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in A Haunting In Venice.(20th Century Studios)
Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 4:32 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - How do you find a suitable challenge for the world’s greatest detective? You force him to confront and consider the unexplainable.

To the rational, calculating mind, ghosts are a laughably naïve concept. Such is the stance of the now-retired Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh). As we encounter him in Venice, he seems content to live a solitary life of retirement, tending his garden and indulging in pastries, all while fending off constant streams of people desperate to employ his impeccable deductive skills. But when the closest thing he has to a friend, best-selling murder mystery author Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), implores him to try and debunk the work of a spiritual medium on Halloween night, it’s not long before he is thrust out of retirement and back on the case.

Poirot is certain he’ll make short work of Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) and her sham séance as she claims to be in contact with the spirit of a girl who jumped to her death from the house’s balcony one year ago. But when someone is murdered with no immediate suspects and seemingly inexplicable occurrences begin filling the house, the master detective is forced to reckon with what is and is not impossible.

There are twists and reveals and jump scares a-plenty. But what A Haunting In Venice may lack in originality, Branagh more than compensates for with good old-fashioned style and a satisfying (albeit straightforward) execution of its story and characters.

The visuals are by far the film’s strongest suit so let’s start there. This is an absolutely gorgeous film to take in and I recommend seeing it in the largest format available. Is it in IMAX near you? It’s absolutely worth the premium format fees. This is a sumptuous movie to behold with deep shadows and a superbly established sense of place. The palazzo where the majority of the film takes place isn’t your typical haunted house locale but Branagh shoots it to be perfectly disarming. I’m not the first writer to make this comparison, but it bears repeating that Branagh clearly took more than a little inspiration from Orson Welles’ 1962 surreal film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s dystopian novel The Trial. Welles’ film uses unusual and disarming camera angles and depths of field that create a deep sense of unease and paranoia. It’s done in a way that I’ve rarely seen imitated, making Branagh’s point of inspiration all the more clear. It’s a lovely tribute to an underrated, underseen film that also serves to further underscore the psychic duress these characters, but especially Poirot, endures. It deserves to be seen as large as possible because much of the film’s sense of dread and oppression comes from seeing this house and its shadowy structures tower and overwhelm.

As for the substance beyond the style, Branagh and the film’s script are a bit more subtle. It’s a Poirot mystery so it shouldn’t shock anyone that a murder happens within the first 20 minutes, but to whom it happens may be a bit more of a surprise. Each surviving character has their own ultimately sympathetic (though some more than others) motivations and connections, but it’s seeing the measured ways in which Branagh shows the cracks in Poirot’s confidence and the roots of his dedication to logic and deduction that I found most endearing. Heroes are at their most interesting when they’re vulnerable in one way or another, so seeing this nigh-invincible mind forced to confront mysteries he may not be able to solve as he’s forced to consider concepts he’d long since evolved beyond is right where Poirot should be at this point in the series.

If there’s a complaint that lingers, it’s that a single casting choice stuck out like a sore thumb. This is due almost entirely to the character’s unmistakable similarity to another played by the same actor in a contemporary piece of entertainment. I’m trying to be vague in the hope that no one else will be immediately distracted as I was, but it took me out of the moment multiple times. I realize this is almost entirely on me and through no fault of the actor’s but there it is all the same.

All that said, I can’t recommend this enough, especially if you’re looking for a more old-fashioned haunted house mystery now that we’re on our way into this year’s Spooky Season.