Haunted Voices

Kenneth Branagh directs the latest Hercule Poirot tale with jet fueled efficiency to an inch of its life. A Haunting in Venice is both a first-rate who-done-it and a ghost story with real chills.

The film is based on Agatha Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party, one of the last she published.

Have you ever seen a film from 1963 by Robert Wise titled The Haunting? It was weakly remade in 1999 to diminished returns. Wise’s version was a haunted house story par excellence. It was genuinely creepy. 

Branagh has basically matched the intensity of what Wise created but with a dark palette where the colors are always in the shadows. There’s a noir influence to be sure but when A Haunting in Venice wants to scare the audience there are audible gasps.

At times there’s a Hammer Films vibe. The gothic enclosed nature of the house on the canal where all the mayhem unfolds only mutates when the first murder occurs. One of the characters after a seance falls to their death and is impaled on a medieval statue.

Branagh finds a way to unhinge the audience in practically every scene. Many, if not most of the shots, are dutch tilt to some degree. Wide angles lenses are frequently used for master shots to distort the sense of realism. Intercutting of close-ups are often jarring if not downright intimidating.

There’s a raging thunderstorm outside. Remember we’re in a city built on water canals. The tone gets bleaker with every reveal, which in the case of A Hunting in Venice means that one of the ensemble cast members has just been killed.

And a solid cast it is. Branagh both behind the camera and front and center; Tina Fey as good as she’s ever been playing a distaff mystery writer obviously influenced by Christie herself; Michelle Yeoh as a psychic; Kelly Reilly as the mother of a young child who mysteriously drowned; Jamie Dorman, Kyle Allen, French actress Camille Cottin as a distressed maid, and a few others, one of whom is found hiding in a chimney.

A perfect ensemble of characters and Branagh makes sure that each line of dialogue somehow points a light at whether the speaker is potentially guilty or not.

Look for a cinematic reference or two to films like Citizen Kane (and The Third Man) with the a cockatoo that provides a scare. Our not so friendly winged friend is in so many scenes it’s a supporting actor cockatoo. Seriously the cockatoo even has a parting shot leaving in a cage.

Wiser cinephiles than myself will revel in the labyrinth of subtle nods to Meet Me In St. Louis.

There’s also a scene that’s right out of Don’t Look Now, a seminal ‘70s film that blurred lines of sight regarding sex and horror. A Haunting in Venice may be light on the sex but it’s stiff on the chills.


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