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MOVIE REVIEW

‘A Haunting in Venice’ is as much horror movie as whodunit

Kenneth Branagh returns as Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot

Riccardo Scamarcio (rear) and Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in "A Haunting in Venice."Rob Youngson

“A Haunting in Venice” is Kenneth Branagh’s third go-round as Agatha Christie’s preeningly infallible detective, Hercule Poirot, he of the preposterous facial hair and pre-Clouseau accent (Poirot’s Belgian, not French). Branagh has directed all three films.

The first one, “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017), was pretty good, if not as good as Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version. The second one, “Death on the Nile” (2022), was pretty bad. Unlike John Guillermin’s so-so 1978 version, that one forgot not to take itself too seriously.

From left: Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, and Kenneth Branagh in "A Haunting in Venice."Rob Youngson

“Haunting” is (very) loosely based on Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party.” More than the title has changed. Yes, the movie takes place on Halloween; and, yes, there’s a party (in a Venetian palazzo, no less). A few characters aside, the resemblance largely ends there.

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The biggest difference is that “Haunting” is as much horror movie as whodunit. Are the dark doings that go on at the party and especially its aftermath supernaturally inspired or standard-issue murderous misdeeds?

Branagh wants to have it both ways. Of course it’s a whodunit. It’s an Agatha Christie story. But maybe the who in question is ectoplasmic in origin. There are screams, apparitions, flashbacks shot in black-and-white, tricky camera angles, lightning flashes, peals of thunder (yup, it’s a dark and stormy night), and not a few shock effects. Even Poirot starts to suffer a bit from a case of the spooky-wookies.

Kelly Reilly in "A Haunting in Venice." Rob Youngson/20th Century Studios

The owner of the palazzo is a famous opera singer (a lackluster Kelly Reilly). She holds a post-party séance to summon the spirit of her dead daughter. Playing the medium is Michelle Yeoh, who sports a fetching salt-and-pepper bob.

On hand for the séance is a thoroughly skeptical Poirot, inveigled to attend by a mystery-novelist friend, Ariadne Oliver. She’s also in attendance. Tina Fey, as Ariadne, provides most of the bubbles in what is otherwise a pretty bubble-free bottle of cinematic Prosecco.

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These Poirot movies have a formula. There’s a what: murder(s) most foul. That what produces a how and why: the detective’s climactic explanation. Before that, viewers get to take in an attractive, glamorous where, populated by an extensive, fairly starry who, the suspects. Predictable as the formula is, it’s not unpleasant.

After Yeoh and Fey, the star power dims. Claire Cottin (“Call My Agent”) plays a highly fretful housekeeper. Jamie Dornan, wearing a fuzzy-caterpillar mustache, is the singer’s physician. Jude Hill is his son. If that père-et-fils pairing sounds familiar, it may be because they played a very different father and his very different son in Branagh’s “Belfast” (2021).

A major change from the Christie novel is that the story’s set in 1947. This has at least one happy consequence: Fey looks quite snazzy in a vintage green fedora. Otherwise, the period placement contributes to the general sense of gloom. Spritely, in tone, look, or execution, “Haunting” most definitely is not.

Kenneth Branagh and Tina Fey in "A Haunting in Venice."Rob Youngson

Among several references to World War II and its aftermath are two characters being revealed as refugees (though that could be 2023 as much as 1947, couldn’t it?); and another character has his “issues” accounted for by having been present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. It’s a cheap, self-aggrandizing device: atrocity as plot point. Worse, it’s atrocity as superfluous plot point.

Why Branagh and the screenwriter, Michael Green (he also did the two earlier Poirot adaptations), would want to bring actual, real-life horror into a mystery movie masquerading as a horror movie is a mystery beyond the powers of even Poirot to solve.

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★★

A HAUNTING IN VENICE

Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Michael Green; based on the novel “Hallow’en Party,” by Agatha Christie. Starring Branagh, Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh, Kelly Reilly, Jamie Dornan, Camille Cottin, Jude Hill. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 103 minutes. PG-13 (some strong violence, disturbing images, thematic elements)


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.