Review: ‘A Haunting in Venice,’ starring Kenneth Branagh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Kelly Reilly and Michelle Yeoh

September 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh and Kenneth Branagh in “A Haunting in Venice” (Photo by Rob Youngson/20th Century Studios)

“A Haunting in Venice”

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Some language in Italian and Latin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1947, in Venice, Italy, the horror film “A Haunting in Venice” (based on Agatha Christie’s novel “Hallowe’en Party”) features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Famous and super-intelligent Belgian detective Hercule Poirot comes out of retirement to solve the murder of someone who died a gruesome death during a Halloween party séance. 

Culture Audience: “A Haunting in Venice” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Agatha Christie novels, the movie’s headliners, and competently told murder mysteries with supernatural elements.

Rowan Robinson and Kelly Reilly in in “A Haunting in Venice” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“A Haunting in Venice” is another efficient but not exceptional offering in director/star Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded series of murder mystery films based on Agatha Christie novels. This horror movie delivers enough intrigue to outweigh some motonony. The other Branagh-directed movies adapted from Christie novels were dramas with no supernatural elements to the stories. “A Haunting in Venice” is a ghost story that makes famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh) question his belief that ghosts don’t exist.

As the third film in a series of Hercule Poirot movies directed by Branagh, “A Haunting in Venice” is the one that is literally the darkest, not just in terms of the cinematography but also in its emotional tone. The previous two Branagh-directed Hercule Poirot movies—2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and 2022’s “Death on the Nile”—contrasted their glamorous locations with the ugly realities of murder among rich and beautiful people. In “A Haunting in Venice,” Detective Poirot and his group of potential suspects not only have to deal with the murder investigation but also the possibility that a ghost might be in their midst, in a gloomy palazzo that has lost a lot of its former attractiveness.

Michael Green adapted the screenplay for “A Haunting in Venice” from Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party.” The movie (which takes place in 1947 and was filmed on location in Venice, Italy) has some touches of comedic riffs between a few of the characters. But for the most part, it’s a pure horror story, with multiple scenes of possible spirits possessing and terrifying living human beings. The ever-logical and fact-finding Hercule remains deeply skeptical about the existence of ghosts, until he starts to wonder if he might be wrong.

In the beginning of “Haunting in Venice,” Hercule is enjoying his retirement asa resident of Venice, a city surrounded by water and where boats, not trains or buses, are the main form of group transportation. Hercule meets up with his sarcastic American friend Ariadne Oliver (played by Tina Fey), an author of mystery novels whose career has been fading because of her most recent books have flopped. It’s established early on that Ariadne is desperate for a comeback, even though she doesn’t really want to admit it to everyone.

The friendship between Ariadne and Hercule goes back to the 1930s. And it hasn’t been an entirely smooth relationship. Ariadne became a popular author because she based her main detective character on Hercule, without asking his permission. It’s caused some tension between Ariadne and Hercule.

Ariadne has a plan to make a comeback by writing a book with a new angle: Ariadne wants the main plot of her next book to be based on a real-life person who can leave Hercule confounded during a murder investigation. She has already decided that the person who can outwit Hercule is someone who has been making a living as a renowned psychic: Joyce Reynolds (played by Michelle Yeoh), who claims to have the ability to speak to the spirits of dead people.

Ariadne tells Hercule about a lavish nighttime Halloween party that retired British opera singer Rowena Drake (played by Kelly Reilly) is hosting for local orphaned children at Rowena’s palazzo, which used to be an orphanage where children were mistreated. The palazzo isn’t entirely run-down, but it’s not exactly in the best of shape. In fact, it has a reputation for possibly being haunted by children who died at this location.

Ariadne has been invited to this party and wants to bring Hercule as her guest. Ariadne is up front with Hercule in saying that she’s not going to the party because of the orphans. Ariadne wants to go to the party because Rowena will be having a séance where single mother Rowena hopes to contact the spirit of her young adult daughter Alicia Drake (played by Rowan Robinson, shown in flashbacks), who died one year ago, after falling from a balcony at the palazzo. The fall is widely believed to have been a suicide, since Alicia had been depressed and dealing with other mental health issues after a breakup from her fiancé.

Joyce has been hired to be the psychic who will lead the séance. Ariadne wants to use what happens at the séance as the basis for Ariadne’s next book. Hercule doesn’t believe in the afterlife. He thinks it’s utter nonsense to believe that ghosts exist. Ariadne is very superstitious and thinks ghosts can exist. Part of Ariadne’s agenda is to get Hercule to change his mind.

Needless to say, someone ends up being murdered at the party, and Hercule ends his retirement to investigate the murder. The death happens when this murder victim is thrown from a stairwell onto a statue that impales the person. As shown in the trailer for “A Haunting in Venice,” Hercule almost gets murdered himself, when someone tries to drown him by forcing his head underwater in a bucket meant for bobbing for apples. And viewers will not be surprised if more than one person ends up dead by the end of “A Haunting in Venice.”

Some viewers might ask themselves while watching the movie: “What kind of person throws a séance during a party for children?” It’s explained that Rowena has been distraught with grief, ever since the death of her only child, Alicia. Rowena’s relationship with Alicia is described as more like sisters rather than mother/daughter. She was also very protective of Alicia.

The children are in another part of the palazzo during the séance, but things start to get dangerous when a huge chandelier falls down in the middle of a room where some of the children are. Luckily, no one is hurt. The party for the orphans essentially ends, but the séance continues, with one child in attendance who is not an orphan: Leopold Ferrier (played by Jude Hill) is the precocious 10-year-old son of widower Dr. Leslie Ferrier (played by Jamie Dornan), who is the Drake family’s personal physician. (Dornan and Hill also played a father and a son in director Branagh’s autobiographical Oscar-winning 2021 film “Belfast.”)

Dr. Ferrier is also a World War II veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder, which has damaged his career and negatively affected his relationship with his son. Leopold and his father are both British. Multiple times in the movie, it’s mentioned that Dr. Ferrier was very fond of Alicia. The implication is that he was in love with her, but he did not cross the line and kept a professional relationship that a doctor has to have with a patient.

Leopold is the only child who is allowed to be at the séance. Why? The movie shows that Leopold’s father has been so wrapped up in his own problems, Leopold often doesn’t have much adult supervision. Leopold is not afraid to tell adults how he thinks he knows more than they do. At one point he says to psychic Louisa: “I talk to ghosts all the time. They say you’re fake.” In other words, Ariadne isn’t the only one in this group with a sassy attitude.

Louisa is also a diva, but she’s much more of a control freak than Ariadne. It should come as no surprise that she clashes with Hercule, who thinks people who make money as psychics are really con artists. However, Louisa (who used to be a war nurse) and Hercule have something in common: They both experienced trauma by witnessing the horrors of war during World War I. Flashback scenes in “Death on the Nile” showed glimpses into Hercule’s war experiences.

It wouldn’t be a movie based on a Christie novel without several murder suspects. After the first murder happens, Hercule orders everyone to stay in the mansion until he solves the murder mystery. One of the people confined to the house is Olga Seminoff (played by Camille Cottin), the Drake family’s devoted housekeeper. Olga is a very religious widow who used to be a nun, but she left her nun life behind when she fell in love with her future husband. Olga, who often speaks in Latin, is very open about her feelings that the séance is religiously wrong, because it’s meant to conjure up the spirit of a dead person.

Other suspects include Joyce’s two assistants: Nicholas Holland (played by Ali Khan) and his sister Desdemona Holland (played by Emma Laird), who are two orphaned young adults from Eastern Europe. Nicholas and Desdemona don’t say a lot and often seem to fade into the background, but their personal history is eventually revealed. Hercule already thinks that Louisa is a fraud as a clairvoyant, so he suspects that Nicholas and Desdemona are at least guilty of being Louisa’s accomplices in a con game.

A surprise and unwelcome guest at this séance is Alicia’s former fiancé Maxime Gerard (played by Kyle Allen), a cocky American chef from New York City. Even before Alicia’s death, Rowena intensely disliked Maxime, because she felt that Maxime was a gold digger who was after the Drake family fortune. Rowena blames Maxime for breaking Alicia’s heart and indirectly causing Alicia’s death. Maxime, who claims his love for Alicia was real, announces during this gathering that he’s going to be rich because he’s got his own restaurant in New York City.

No one is immune to being a suspect, not even Vitale Portfoglio (played by Richard Scamarcio), a retired policeman who is now Hercule’s bodyguard. A police officer who becomes part of the investigation is Vincenzo Di Stefano (played by Fernando Piloni), who was also on the scene after Alicia died. Hercule becomes convinced that Alicia’s death is somehow related to the murder that happened during this party.

“A Haunting in Venice” has lot of the traditional “jump scares” found in movies where a séance takes place in a mansion with a reputation for being haunted. What’s more interesting is to see the psychological effect that these “ghost sightings” have on Hercule, who is the biggest ghost skeptic in the group. He starts to wonder if he’s hallucinating, which shakes his confidence about his mental capacity to logically solve the crimes that have occurred during this gathering.

Branagh has a comfortable handle on this beloved and quirky detective character, so watching “A Haunting in Venice” is interesting to see this new side to Hercule. Yeoh has a very commanding and impressive presence as Joyce, who thinks she’s the best psychic in the world. Reilly’s performance as the emotionally fragile Rowena remains compelling throughout the film.

Fey puts her comedic talent to good use in her performance as Ariadne, who isn’t as sour and annoying as this author character could have been, because of the way that Fey delivers the lines. Hill is a scene stealer as Leopold, while Allen’s depiction of Maxime and Dornan’s portrayal of Leslie show different versions of emotionally wounded men. The rest of the characters in the movie are fairly two-dimensional and don’t have much depth.

The cinematography of “A Haunting in Venice” (which takes place mostly at night) is bathed in a lot dark gold and brown for interior scenes and dark blue for the nighttime exterior scenes. Because most of the movie takes place inside a house, viewers won’t get to see much of Venice’s outdoor beauty, but when it’s shown, it looks gorgeous. The production design is top-notch. Branagh’s overall direction is quite stylish but occasionally stodgy.

As for the mystery itself, there comes a point in the movie where it might be easy for some viewers to figure out who’s guilty of the crimes. People who know enough about murder mystery stories know that the best ones have surprising elements, even when there are clues that point to the guilty party. Whether or not viewers solve the mystery before the movie ends, “A Haunting in Venice” remains an entertaining journey along the way and should satisfy people who are fans of Christie’s classic novels.

20th Century Studios will release “A Haunting in Venice” in U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023.

Review: ‘The Cursed’ (2022), starring Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly and Alistair Petrie

April 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Boyd Holbrook and Kelly Reilly in “The Cursed” (Photo courtesy of LD Entertainment)

“The Cursed” (2022)

Directed by Sean Ellis

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed English village in the late 1882, and briefly in France in 1917, the horror movie “The Cursed” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A small village in England is plagued by disappearances and murders that are being blamed on a possible werewolf. 

Culture Audience: “The Cursed” will appeal primarily to people interested in werewolf horror stories that have elements of intrigue and visual terror that are better than most horror films.

Amelia Crouch and Kelly Reilly in “The Cursed” (Photo courtesy of LD Entertainment)

“The Cursed” makes some unique and effective visual departures from a typical werewolf horror movie. The movie’s pace is sometimes sluggish, but the terror scenes more than make up for the film’s minor flaws. It’s not a movie that’s going to be considered the best horror film of the year, but “The Cursed” is very memorable and has the benefit of talented cast members who make their characters entirely believable.

Written and directed by Sean Ellis, “The Cursed” was originally titled “Eight for Silver” when it premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Although “The Cursed” is a very generic title that’s the name of several other horror movies, it’s actually a more accurate description of this movie’s plot than “Eight for Silver.” “The Cursed” has some gruesome violence that isn’t overly excessive. One of the best aspects of the movie is in how it builds suspense.

“The Cursed” opens with a scene taking place in France’s the Somme in 1917, during World War I. (History buffs might nitpick because World War I’s famous Battle of the Somme actually took place in 1916.) Soldiers wearing gas masks are in the battlefield trenches when they come under attack. Some of the wounded soldiers are then taken to a very chaotic medical tent. One of those soldiers, whose identity is revealed at the end of the film, undergoes emergency surgery, where a doctor extracts a large silver bullet from this soldier.

The movie than jumps to a scene taking place in an unknown country, where a middle-aged woman named Charlotte Laurent (played by Annabel Mullion) begins to tell a story about a life-changing experience that she had 35 years ago, in 1882, when she was about 14 or 15 years old. Most of “The Cursed” consists of Charlotte’s flashback memories to this point in time in her life.

The teenage Charlotte (played by Amelia Crouch) lives with her family in a very isolated small village, which does not have a name in the movie. And as is typical for a horror movie, this village is near a heavily wooded area. The village is presumably in England, since the residents have English accents, but there are a lot of people with French names in the village too. (“The Cursed” was actually filmed in France.)

Charlotte comes from a wealthy family whose patriarch, Seamus Laurent (played by Alistair Petrie), is a tyrant who’s used to getting what he wants. Seamus and his dutiful wife Isabelle Laurent (played by Kelly Reilly) are the parents of Charlotte and Edward (Max Mackintosh), who’s about 11 or 12 years old when this story takes place. They all live in a mansion that will soon become hub of supernatural and terrifying activities.

Seamus is not only a bully, but he’s also greedy and racist. In an early scene in the movie, he and several other men are having dinner at his home and conspire to take land away from the gypsies who are living in an outdoor camp on this property. Meanwhile, an unnamed gypsy woman (played by Pascale Becouze), who appears to be the gypsies’ spiritual leader, tells her tribe that a storm is coming. She says of an unnamed entity: “We have protected it for generations. It has protected us for generations.” Then she begins chanting.

It isn’t long before Seamus and his group of marauders invade the gypsy camp on horseback and armed with guns. A massacre occurs that will be very hard for sensitive viewers to watch. The gypsies who aren’t shot to death are captured, tortured, and murdered in other ways.

The gypsy leader has an unnamed male companion (played by Jicey Carina), who is a blacksmith. They both suffer the cruel fate of being tortured before dying. He is strung up like a scarecrow and hanged to death. She is thrown into a shallow grave and buried alive.

Before she is buried alive in this grave, Seamus and his men steal from her a denture mold of a human mouth that has silver teeth, because they want the silver. Of course, the gypsy woman is no ordinary spiritual leader. She is somehow connected to the supernatural, and she places a curse on the murderers who have massacred her tribe. And you know what that means in a horror movie.

Meanwhile, a pathologist named John McBride (played by Boyd Holbrook) has arrived in the village to investigate what appears to be a series of animal attacks. The villagers are starting to suspect that this is no ordinary animal but something supernatural and evil. John is a scientist whose beliefs about the supernatural evolve, based on what he experiences during his stay in this village. John is also a widower who has his own tragic story that’s eventually revealed.

Not long after this murder spree, Edward starts having nightmares of seeing the gypsy leader coming to attack him in the same field where she died. Edward has no idea about the terrible crimes his father Seamus has committed, so Edward is frightened and confused by what he’s seeing in his nightmares. The wives and children of the massacre killers also have no knowledge that these husbands and fathers have committed these heinous crimes.

One of these children is Timmy Adam (played by Tommy Rodger), who is about 11 or 12 years old. Timmy is the son of John Adam (played by Sean Mahon), one of the men involved in the gypsy massacre. One day, Timmy and Edward are outside playing when Timmy finds the denture mold with the silver teeth. Timmy then viciously bites Edward on the neck, while Charlotte (who is nearby and witnesses this attack) runs away to get help.

Edward is wounded, but it’s not fatal. The doctor treating Edward tells the Laurent family that the bite wound looks like Edward was attacked by a wild animal. The wound is infected, but the doctor gives some medicine to treat it. Not long after this bite attack, while Edward is bedridden during his recovery, Charlotte starts seeing strange things in Edward’s room at night, such as slimy creatures coming out of Edward while he’s in bed.

And then, Edward mysteriously disappears from the home without any of his family members seeing him leave. His family finds out that he’s missing the next morning, when they see that he’s nowhere in the house. Timmy has no memory of biting Edward, and he is among the villagers who participate in the frantic search for Edward. Edward’s disappearance leads to more people vanishing or being murdered in the village. And the murders seem to be coming from a wolf-like animal.

The rest of “The Cursed” shows the mystery behind what’s happening in this plagued village. The werewolf creature is not a typical hairy monster with fangs. The movie does some clever re-imagining of werewolf lore, in terms of how this creature looks and how it attacks. Fabien Houssaye, Carl Laforêt and Miko Abouaf are the three actors who portray this werewolf creature in “The Cursed.”

One of the best things about “The Cursed” is that it looks convincing as a story that takes place in the years that it takes place, due in large part to the authentic-looking production design and costume design. The most terrifying scenes in the movie are absolutely gripping. And although there are some predictable jump scares, not everything in the movie is formulaic.

“The Cursed” writer/director Ellis is also the movie’s cinematographer. He infuses the movie with a lot of brown and gray tones that make the movie look foreboding instead of drab. Likewise, the camera angles keep audiences feeling a certain tension that anything can happen, even when the movie’s pacing tends to slow down.

Holbrook and Reilly have the standout roles as John and Isabelle, because they are the adults in the story with the best moral compass. All of the cast members do well in their performances, but no one is going to be nominated for any major awards for this movie, whose dialogue can be a bit forgettable. “The Cursed” is a solid addition to werewolf movies that should satisfy most horror fans who like a horror film to have an intriguing mystery along with the frightening scenes.

LD Entertainment released “The Cursed” in U.S. cinemas on February 18, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on March 15, 2022. “The Cursed” is set for release on Blu-ray and DVD on May 10, 2022.

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