Kenneth Branagh indulges in the kind of macabre theatricality that only a crumbling Venetian palazzo on a stormy Halloween night can provide in "A Haunting in Venice. "
Moviegoers probably long ago made up their mind one way or another about Branagh's stately and flawed Hercule Poirot franchise, but should there be any curiosity left for this third installment is worth it. It is spooky, fun and features Tina Fey, looking smart and sleek in post-war suits as the fast-talking author of wildly successful whodunnits who says things like "I'm the smartest person I know" in a mid-Atlantic accent.
Set in 1947 on a particularly foggy night in the city of canals, "A Haunting in Venice" is beautiful to look at, with costumes by Sammy Sheldon, production design by John Paul Kelly and cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos. And it's embellished with moody but palatable scares that feel reminiscent of classics like "The Innocents" and "The Others," that are enhanced by Hildur Guðnadóttir's score. In other words, this might not excite a "Saw" enthusiast, but for the more easily scared and skittish it hits just the right notes.
Agatha Christie takes a bit of a backseat here, as Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green take only the loosest inspiration from her 1969 book "The Hallowe'en Party" for their haunting, firstly by moving it to Venice.
The crew is in for a long, stormy, claustrophobic night with finger pointing, more deaths and some inexplicable phenomena at play. Poirot's existential crisis is probably the least interesting aspect of the whole thing, despite its centrality to the plot, but Branagh doesn't waste too much of his time diving into those self-indulgent waters.
Maybe Branagh should have been leaning more into horror this whole time with this franchise. Or maybe it's a case of underestimating a director whose work is prolific and not always personal. It can be hard to take stock of a filmmaker's career when they've made great Shakespeare and Cinderella adaptations as well as "Thor" and "Artemis Fowl." But it's always a pleasant surprise when it works, as "A Haunting in Venice" very much does.
"A Haunting in Venice," a 20th Century Studios release that hit theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for "some strong violence, disturbing images and thematic elements." Running time: 107 minutes. Three stars out of four.