During a press screening for A Haunting In Venice, Kenneth Branagh‘s latest Hercule Poirot mystery, the packed audience at the El Capitan in Hollywood held its breath during a scene midway through the film: Specifically, the moment teased by more than one trailer, as the famous Belgian detective struggles in a small dark bathroom with the faucet of the sink… only to see the image of a specter in the mirror in front of him.
When the ghost appeared, after several long seconds of anticipation, it did so with enough surprise to shock some genuine gasps out of the crowd — yet those sounds were immediately followed by a very different response: Laughter. A wry theater-wide chuckle, an acknowledgement that yes, there was nothing new or original about the reaction Branagh had pulled from his audience. But damn, it was still effective.
The above is probably the spookiest moment of A Haunting in Venice, which has been heavily marketed by Disney not as a detective story, but as a supernatural thriller. I’ve heard multiple people inquire as to how scary it really is (including my own dad), and justifiably so, given the marketing, which hard sells ghosts lurking in every corner of a crumbling Venitian mansion, perhaps overtly so.
It’s kind of funny that the trailer feels like it’s going out of its way to conceal the fact that Venice is a Poirot mystery. The previous film, Death on the Nile, did make just $130,298,184 worldwide in comparison to Murder on the Orient Express‘s $351,767,147, but Nile was an early 2022 release, before Tom Cruise officially saved movie theaters, and it was also hampered by the presence of Armie Hammer, who at that point was staying out of the public eye following some serious allegations. Poirot is maybe fiction’s most famous detective, except for that weirdo on Baker Street — why not just sell that?
Because it’s spooky season, seems to be the answer, even though the actual film isn’t all that scary. A Haunting in Venice begins with Poirot claiming retirement in 1947 Venice, until lady writer — sorry, “authoress” — Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) interrupts his exacting routine. Ariadne isn’t there to apologize to Poirot for using him as inspiration for her mystery novels — instead, she wants him to witness a medium (Michelle Yeoh) perform an seance and verify whether or not she’s a fraud.
No spoilers, but as Poirot witnesses the medium attempt to make contact with a young woman whose death by suicide left her mother (Kelly Reilly) bereft, the film does play with the tropes of horror. Much of its dramatic tension comes from the conflict between whether the increasingly strange events which occur following another death that night are the work of man or spirit; it’s more X-Files than Scooby Doo, and not just because its biggest scares are all acceptable for 1990s broadcast television.
Beyond that, Venice offers plenty of delights, from its sumptuous vacation porn (good-looking city, Venice!) to trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with Tina Fey’s accent. Fey’s a tough actress to accept in period pieces, but she has a fun spark with Branagh that makes the accent work forgivable, and the cast is also stacked with well-known favorites — nice to see Michelle Yeoh play a role where she gets to explore an ambiguous morality, and Kelly Reilly reminds those of us who don’t watch Yellowstone what a talent she is.
There’s also an adorable reunion between Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, who once again play father and son after working together in Branagh’s Oscar-winning Belfast. Outside of his scenes with Hill, Dornan lacks some of the spark he’s recently found on screen (Barb and Star fans unite!) but the two have a very different dynamic from their previous collaboration, and Hill excels at channeling a vibe that’s equal parts unnerving and amusing.
Venice, if nothing else, is a pleasant reminder that stories can be spooky without aiming for hard scares. Sometimes, the vibes of Halloween can feel like an all-or-nothing proposition, but for us scaredycats, sometimes it’s nice to just enjoy autumnal vibes with just a hint of terror in the air, like the first whiff of wood smoke while walking through your hometown on a brisk October day.
Yes, there are a couple of times when the film might prove a bit scary. But it’s the good kind of scare, one that lurks solely in the mind for a moment — leaving you relieved when it’s over, and just a little bit thrilled to have felt a little more alive, for that one heartbeat.
A Haunting in Venice is in theaters now.