Hercule Poirot’s little gray cells have served him well. But by 1947, they deserve a break. And so does Poirot.
The great detective is finished with murder, done with death. He’s turned his ever-orderly mind to more gentle pursuits in Venice: measuring marketplace eggs to the millimeter for his breakfast. Dusting (that’s right, dusting) his garden. His bodyguard, Vitale, keeps potential clients at bay, keeping Poirot’s world clean and conflict-free.
But then an old friend comes to call—a paperback mystery writer, of all people—by the name of Ariadne Oliver. She’s in town for a séance, led by a woman the papers call “the unholy Mrs. Reynolds.”
Ariadne, like Poirot, has always assumed that mediums such as Mrs. Reynolds were invariably phony. But Mrs. Reynolds? She’s something different. And try as Ariadne does to catch the medium’s chicanery, she’s been unsuccessful. Now, she wants Poirot to join her at the séance—to put his little gray cells to use one more time and spot the fake.
“I am the smartest person I ever met, and I can’t figure it out,” Ariadne tells Poirot. “So I came to the second.”
Poirot agrees—for an old friend. The place: a crumbling Venetian villa owned by the legendary opera singer Rowena Drake. The date: Halloween. And who will Mrs. Reynolds be trying to contact on the other side of death’s veil?
Why, Rowena’s daughter, Alicia, of course. She committed suicide not so long ago. Or so the doctor concluded. But some say the villa’s many ghosts might’ve given her a little … push.
The guests settle in for the séance, and Mrs. Roberts does her thing: She contacts Alicia. Or, at least, she seems to, before Poirot uncovers her accomplice in the chimney. The detective has done his work. He’s proved that Mrs. Roberts, while an excellent actress, is nothing but a frau—
But then the door crashes open. Mrs. Roberts’ chair begins to spin. And the medium—speaking in Alicia’s voice—screams the same word again and again.
“Murderer!” she wails. “Murderer!” It’s a shocking spectacle, to be sure. But one guest is more shocked than the rest. And if Alicia was murdered in this house, she’ll have company before the evening is over.
It should not be a spoiler to say that not every guest makes it out of the villa alive. Murder is indeed afoot, and Poirot has spent his career bringing murderers and other malcontents to justice. We can laud his desire to get to the bottom of this little conundrum, too.
But we should note that the suspects he’s given are often better people than they first might appear. I’ll say little else about that, given what we learn about these characters may have a bearing on the outcome of this whodunit. But one relationship does deserve special notice.
Dr. Leslie Ferrier, a family friend of Rowena’s, is clearly a disturbed, brittle man. He hides in a room as children scamper through the villa (Rowena threw a party for the orphans—a nice act of charity itself), and he seems unable to deal with much. His young son, Leopold, now finds him in the confusing role of sometime caretaker for his own dad—making sure he’s as comfortable as he can be and reassuring his father that everything’s going to be just fine. When the doctor protests that he should be taking care of Leopold, not the other way ‘round, Leo generously tells him that he does. And indeed, we see Dr. Ferrier’s love and care for the boy demonstrated.
We expect Hercules Poirot to investigate death. But in (the aptly named) A Haunting in Venice, he’s called to investigate something far more difficult to nail down: whether there’s life after.
Poirot comes into the story a firm skeptic. He does not believe in mediums, or the supernatural, or God. “I have lost my faith,” he says.
“How sad for you,” Mrs. Reynolds says.
“The truth is sad,” Poirot retorts.
But circumstances force Poirot to, perhaps, doubt his unbelief. He (and we) must ask whether he can trust what he sees and hears, or whether something else is burbling under the surface.
Mrs. Reynolds is, obviously, a standard-bearer for a more spiritual understanding of our world. Rumor has it that she was the last person arrested under centuries-old witchcraft laws. (She dislikes the word witch and instead prefers the moniker medium.)
She claims to talk to the dead: If she’s for real (as characters remind us), it’s proof of the soul, of the afterlife and of a more complex reality. Some argue that her visions prove that there is a God, and one who cares enough about us to give us the gift of an immortal soul. But Poirot doubts the spirits—even if they existed—would speak to Mrs. Reynolds. “If there is a God,” Poirot says, “He would not break His rule for her.”
Olga Seminoff is not a fan of Mrs. Reynolds, either—but for a far different reason. She believes the medium is indeed “unholy,” and she quotes Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”) as evidence that Mrs. Reynolds’ activities violate nature and God. When Poirot asks why she would even agree to attend the séance, Olga responds, “There is only one to whom I must answer,” she tells him. “And that is not you.”
Opinions about whether Mrs. Reynolds is a fraud or not run the gamut, even among those who know her well. She certainly talks a good game, though. And when Alicia appears to speak through her, “Alicia” claims to be “thirsty” and in torment (perhaps an echo of Luke 16:24).
The villa itself is home to a gruesome legend. It was once a children’s hospital. But when war broke out and wore on, the home’s Catholic overseers reportedly deserted the children and left them to die. Ever since then, the villa has been allegedly cursed under something called the “children’s vendetta,” where the children’s spirits torment those in the house.
We see nuns chaperone orphans, and we learn that a character used to be a nun. A shadow-puppet show features nuns and a priest, too. An elaborate clock features Adam, Eve and the snake in the Garden of Eden. A cross is shown in the background of the séance scene. A character crosses herself.
We hear references to Ouija boards and crystal balls (though Mrs. Reynolds uses a typewriter). Supernatural happenings appear to take place throughout the film. We hear someone say that every house in Venice is “either haunted or cursed.” Even the film’s poster features five of the film’s characters positioned to look like arms on a pentagram.
A young couple kisses during the villa’s Halloween party. Ariadne sits next to the couple and signals a “nun alert,” and the two vamoose. One suspect secretly loves another.
There’s no question that Alicia is dead. In flashback, we see her fall from a villa balcony and into the water below, and several scenes show her corpse being pulled out of the water.
It’s not the only dead body we see. We’ll skimp on the details here, given the nature of the film. But some character arcs end violently and grotesquely, even though the blood we see on screen is fairly minimal. Corpses are covered with shrouds, and sometimes those shrouds can be stained with blood.
Someone tries to drown Poirot—dunking his face into a basin of water. The mark of the “Children’s Vendetta” includes bloody claw marks. (Alicia’s own body bore such marks.) Two characters get in a fistfight, and one is nearly shoved into a shard of broken glass. At least one desiccated corpse is found in the house. Someone’s punched in the face. Another character trips over a speeding trunk.
Vitale is an exuberant defender of Poirot’s privacy. When someone tries to ask Poirot to investigate some mysterious happenings, Vitale punches the man and tells him, “Touch him again, and I take your hand.” He pushes another would-be client off a bridge.
We hear several references to wartime traumas and villages burned.
One use of the s-word and a small assortment of other profanities, including “a–,” “b–tard,” “h—” and “d–n.” God’s name is misused three times, and “Christ” is invoked as a profanity twice.
When Dr. Ferrier looks particularly distraught, son Leo asks him if he needs a “pill.” Ariadne complains that critics called her last three books “small beer.” She’s looking for a “big beer” book now. Characters sip liquor and aperitifs. We hear a reference to opium.
[Spoiler Warning] A hallucinogen plays a part in the mystery.
Two characters have fake IDs and checkered pasts, and they admit to stealing in order to survive some harsh post-war years. Characters scheme, lie and keep secrets. A couple admits to being bad at their jobs.
During the children’s Halloween party, housekeeper Olga Seminoff sidles up next to mystery writer Ariadne Oliver and tells her she’s a big fan. Ariadne’s murder mysteries underline God’s ultimate plan, she says, and prove that “the wicked will meet justice.” Ariadne acerbically laments that if only life was so clear-cut—so obviously the work of a good, just God.
A Haunting in Venice is primarily a murder mystery. It’s secondarily a horror story. But underneath it all lies that central, spiritual tension: that of a divine plan juxtaposed against the mess of the world.
Perhaps that’s why murder mysteries—in spite of all the hidden motives and secret affairs and blood on the floor—have long had an appeal for Christians, both in their reading (and watching) and writing. Some of the best mystery novelists were (and are) Christian. And those sometimes-gruesome books, in a way, are an echo of the biblical creation story: Out of chaos comes order. Out of murky, murderous darkness comes the clear light of reason, of truth, of justice. Fitting that Agatha Christie’s most famous detective, Hercules Poirot, was written as a practicing Catholic.
Director/actor Kenneth Branagh’s Poirot (whom he’s played in three movies) has no such religious bent. Secularism has claimed the light of reason as its own these days, and most Christians seem willing to cede the point. While the film takes place in 1947, its leading figure embraces a far more 21st-century stance, where science and religion are increasingly—albeit often falsely—at odds. It seems that this Poirot has thrown religion in the same closet where mysticism and superstition reside and pocketed the key.
And yet, the doorknob turns.
The spiritual questions at the core of A Haunting in Venice makes this film the most interesting of the three—even if those same elements make it very un-Agatha Christie-like. It’s an effective horror flick, filled with atmospheric details and cheap jump scares. It’s a clever little mystery. And in terms of content, it’s far cleaner than, say, 2022’s needlessly problematic Death on the Nile.
Certainly, the movie’s supernatural and occultic elements should give anyone pause. As Olga says, such things are not meant to be trifled with. But for those who choose to see this flick, those same elements can provide some interesting discussion points—to get your own little gray cells working.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.