When the first trailers for a brand new Hercule Poirot mystery first emerged a couple months ago, I was surprised and excited for a couple reasons.
First, I had no idea that a new film was even in production and second, it looked to dip into the horror genre!
Lastly, as much as I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh's remakes of "Murder on the Orient Express" and "Death on the Nile", (and I loved them both) the original versions are all-time favorites, so there was no whodunit in the mix for me.
With Poirot's new film, A HAUNTING IN VENICE, he's dipping into a lesser known Agatha Christie book, "Hallowe'en Party" and the mysteries are all freshly presented to be unscrambled.
Branagh has comfortably settled into his portrayal of the famous Belgian detective his third time out, finding a bit more humor and a lot more self doubt as Poirot lives a solitary, self-exiled life, out of the limelight in Venice.
Branagh's constant man behind the camera, Haris Zambarloukos shoots Venice incredibly well, using old fashioned views of the city in brilliant combination with drone shots that give you ominous angles of the ancient town you've never seen before. The film LOOKS fantastic.
Poirot's only frequent companion is his bodyguard Vitale (Riccardo Scarmarcio) whose sole job is to keep the horde of folks away that are desperate to have the retired Poirot take on just one more case.
American author Ariadne Oliver (Tiny Fey giving off enjoyable 1940's Katherine Hepburn vibes) comes to Poirot's flat and tells him that he simply must attend a seance that evening at a former, supposedly haunted orphanage, now owned by faded opera star Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly from "Yellowstone").
Drake's daughter recently died in the orphanage and she's hired famed medium Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) to make contact with her.
Poirot is a non-believer of the highest order and reluctantly goes to the seance where an especially interesting group is gathering.
The housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin from "House of Gucci") is a staunchly religious woman who wants nothing to do with spirits of any kind.
Jamie Dornan (Belfast, Heart of Stone) is terrific as Dr. Ferrier, the man who treated Rowena's daughter to the end. He's so shattered by his recent WWII experiences that he's constantly pulled back into them. His young son Leopold (a brilliant little Jude Hill from "Belfast") is a precocious old soul, reading Edgar Allen Poe while the other children trick or treat. He's a mini-Poirot, making observations far beyond his years.
Kyle Allen (West Side Story) is the former fiance of Rowena's daughter, who seems to have been a gold digger that moved on to a bigger prize.
Emma Laird and Ali Khan are standouts as Mrs. Reynolds assistants, Desdamona and Nicholas Holland.
The seance is a doozy. It's everything you want in a murder mystery set up. Chairs spin, bodies convulse, guttural voices are spoken and windows fly open and thunder booms.
Poirot is intrigued but has explanations for all....and then......
I'll say no more.
A murder occurs.
Poirot locks the doors, keeping all his suspects inside as he delves into the crime.
But what happens if all the suspects don't seem to be human?
I loved the way Branagh digs deeper into Poirot, showing more of his weaknesses and blind spots than Ustinov or Finney ever dared on the big screen.
The international cast is excellent. The strange, mostly quiet music score by Hildur Guonadottir (Joker) creates a creepy atmosphere and the sound team are all pros, sticking you right in the middle of a constant thunderstorm, the water of Venice around your feet and the ghosts of children swirling around the Palazzo.
Branagh has said that he worked with the crew during many sequences to surprise his actors with gusts of wind, lights going out or sudden noises. Many of their jumps and screams are not acting. He's got more than a couple great jump scares in store for the audience as well.
Released on what would have been Agatha Christie's 133rd birthday, I think she'd be pretty proud of A HAUNTING IN VENICE. The fact that her books can still create moody, enjoyable period thrillers more than a century later is incredible.
I'm hoping Branagh keeps surprising me by turning one of these out every couple years.
Poirot's latest case earns a solid A-.