Kenneth Branagh’s A Haunting in Venice may not satisfy mystery fans, but it will still leave an impression on regular moviegoers.
Let me get one praise out of the way first: A Haunting in Venice is a much better title than the source material, “Hallowe’en Party.” The movie title gets across the points quick and easy, unlike the book title, which might have you wondering if the victim was murdered by a Halloween piñata cracked over their head.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring said director as detective Hercule Poirot, A Haunting in Venice is the third adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famous detective series. It follows detective Poirot as he is invited to a séance at an old orphanage in – you read the title – Venice. When a murder occurs seemingly connected to a previous death at the house, it’s up to Poirot to disprove the supernatural and dig up the skeletons of the human culprit.
I actually haven’t read that many Agatha Christie books, but I still know how legendary they are in the world of whodunits. Yet, despite this being Branagh’s third attempt at adapting those stories to film, they haven’t pulled in mystery buffs the way the novels did. Is it just that those old tales are outdated now? While I wouldn’t rule out that possibility – it’s been several decades since Christie and we haven’t exactly had a shortage of mystery novels – I would like to point to a different reason: the fact that we are having movie adaptations in the first place.
See, I believe it is inherently difficult to create a good mystery movie. Mysteries are like puzzles. The joy is in seeing how seemingly irrelevant pieces end up clicking together into a bigger picture. If the big picture is too obvious, audiences will get bored, but if you make a 1,000,000 piece puzzle (What do you mean it actually exists?!) where each piece is exactly the same shape and color, then even when you show the full image, people will call it cheap.
That’s the precarious game mystery stories have to play. Books are very well suited for this game, since you can read them at your own pace. Therefore, you’re free to go back to or take note of certain parts that you think is important. Thus, the writer can plant multiple clues, both big and small, and leave the solving mainly in the readers’ control. That sense of control is key, because then readers can feel like they are playing a fair game with the author, and not feel cheated even if they lose.
But movies are different, because they are mainly theatrical experiences. You can’t ask to pause and rewind in a movie theater, lest you get thrown in the popcorn machine by dozens of furious audience members. It’s harder to remember certain details because you may miss it if you happen to focus on your popcorn or shoot an annoyed glare at someone who didn’t silence their phone.
In other words, movies take a lot of control – in what and when you can see or hear details – away from the audience: the same control that is essential to enjoying a mystery. Therefore, you cannot be as meticulous when crafting a mystery for a movie because you don’t want to come off as cheap. But what happens then is that the mystery turns out to be too simple for the mystery buffs, the very people you are making the film for.
Which is where we must return to A Haunting in Venice, and here’s where all the above spiel becomes relevant as the aforementioned issues are at play here too. The actual mystery – while I won’t spoil – is very simple. The culprit and their motive, similarly, is also uncomplicated, and I even daresay fairly easy to guess. The trick for the murder depends on one detail that is only glanced over once in the film, and not even properly specified.
I don’t believe Branagh or the writers should take all the blame for this because again, they were already fighting an uphill battle when they decided they’d make a film. But the fact still remains that this is a very uncomplicated – and dare I say, unsatisfying – mystery. But here’s the thing: I think Branagh and co. fully knew this going in. They must have known they’d have to simplify a lot of things for a movie adaptation. That would explain why A Haunting in Venice doesn’t seem to focus on the mystery aspect at all. Instead, the effort went into the acting, the drama, and the setting.
The set design and atmosphere are exquisite. You could have told me that this was a horror movie and I’d have firmly believed it. The house manages to look creepy from just the lighting and some background props like the rain or shadows without going full Dracula’s castle on us. Now granted, some of the scares come down to jumpscares, but the general buildup to the murder and the cloud of unease afterwards was very solid.
The film also places a lot of emphasis on the dramatic elements. Each of the characters have a story, and they all have something you can remember them by. Of course, the side effect is that a lot of them end up feeling like red herrings for the murder mystery, and I think the number of characters means the film has to skim over some of them with only their Instagram profile versions. But I still was invested enough to watch how each of their stories ended.
All of this meant that even when my brain was sighing that it didn’t get the full-course meal I expected from an Agatha Christie mystery, I was still immersed in the overall experience. You’re more likely to enjoy A Haunting in Venice if you approach it as a horror drama with a spoonful of mystery elements.
A Haunting in Venice had me wondering just how I should rate it. I mean, how much can you praise a mystery movie where its strongest point isn’t the mystery? In the end, while everyone’s tastes in films is different, I didn’t have a bad time once I accepted what this film was going to be. But if you’re a true mystery buff who went into this expecting Agatha Christie’s genius, all you’d get is a ghost of her talent.
A Haunting in Venice will be released globally in theaters from September 15, 2023.