“A Haunting in Venice” and the limits of our beliefs | You Scared Me!

Throughout his long career, director Kenneth Branagh’s infatuation with the works of literary greats has produced some fascinating results — for better or for worse. Between his many Shakespeare adaptations and his take on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” it is clear that Branagh draws a lot of inspiration from other artists, even at the risk of obscuring his creative voice at times.

As of late, Branagh’s attempts at bringing the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie to the big screen have left a lot to be desired. While his interpretation of “Murder on the Orient Express” passed as a fine but uninventive movie, “Death on the Nile was a disaster in nearly every aspect imaginable. Neither of these films could capture the wit and intrigue of Christie’s writing, making this match between director and source material seem like a fraught blend.

In a shocking turn of events, “A Haunting in Venice — the latest Branagh-Christie pairing — is easily the best project Branagh has directed in years. Even if some of its efforts at crafting horror fall a bit flat, the supernatural mystery offered here makes for an eerie and entertaining watch — one that is far more satisfying than its precursors.

Based on Christie’s novel “Hallowe’en Party,” this film throws a retired Hercule Poirot, played once again by Branagh himself, back into action when a Halloween séance results in a suspicious death. As he combs through his list of unusual suspects — including a tormented war doctor and an opera singer mourning the loss of her daughter — the renowned detective is compelled to reckon with the notion that forces from beyond the grave could be at play.

What makes “A Haunting in Venice” such a delight to watch is how thoroughly it tests its characters’ beliefs regarding the existence of spiritual phenomena. By emphasizing the spectral tilt to this story’s proceedings, Branagh pits his believers and skeptics against each other in quite a few exciting ways, all the while allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions as to whether or not the suspects at the core of this film are to be trusted.

The palazzo this movie takes place in is a stunning combination of architecture and craftwork that is worth the cost of admission alone. The distinctive cinematography choices by Haris Zambarloukos uncover every secret of this potentially cursed location in an unnerving fashion. Because parts of this film were shot on location in Venice, this gorgeous setting lends the film a lot of immersion, especially when compared to the uncanny CGI backdrops of “Death on the Nile.”

Although this film nails the creepy atmosphere it establishes, it’s considerably less skilled at telegraphing actual moments of horror. The sudden loud noises and jumpscares the film uses to elicit fear from its viewers — like a bird screaming or a chandelier crashing out of nowhere — are directly at odds with the more deliberate mystery the film unravels. 

Despite what the marketing might lead some to believe, it’s important to note that “A Haunting in Venice” is more of a mystery with frightening elements than a full-blown horror story. As a result, the whole thing is a bit too hollow and tidy to be truly chilling. Although the cast tries their hardest to sell what this narrative calls for, there is a slight disconnect between the terror conveyed on-screen and the extent to which audiences can buy into it.

Nevertheless, “A Haunting in Venice” is still a fun and occasionally thought-provoking start to the fall movie season. If Branagh continues to balance his own style and that of Agatha Christie as well as he does here, his future endeavors at adapting her works might read less like a parasitic relationship and more like a symbiotic one.

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