Kenneth Branagh Breaks Down A Haunting In Venice Trailer: Poirot’s Return, Michelle Yeoh, And Spectral Palazzos

A Haunting In Venice

by Tom Nicholson |
Updated on

If you’ve ever wondered what Hercule Poirot might make of being dropped into, say, the Insidious universe, your messages to the other side have been answered. The brand new trailer for Sir Kenneth Branagh’s third Poirot movie, A Haunting in Venice – following Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile – shows everyone’s favourite Belgian pogonophile being drawn into a world of ghouls, spirits and creepy-looking kids. A Haunting in Venice is set over one long, dark night: Halloween 1947, to be precise. In the City of Masks, a palazzo with a dark past draws together people looking for answers to the mysterious disappearance of a young girl – a group including Poirot himself. Usually a sceptic, he’s forced to question what’s real and what’s imagined, and whether there are forces beyond his formidable intellect out there.

It’s based on a later story of Agatha Christie’s, Halloween Party, one which hasn’t been adapted often and which invited screenwriter Michael Green to go full-bore horror. “When I read his screenplay, it was really spine-chilling,” Branagh tells Empire when he jumps on the phone to break down the trailer. Grab your rosaries: things are about to get spooky.

Yes we canal

Christie’s story was originally set in the English village of Woodleigh Common, but Venice’s grandeur and slightly ghostly energy felt like the right fit for a story which invites spirits across the border between worlds. “It's exotic and it's gothic, it's mysterious,” says Branagh. “Each day that city fills completely and empties.” After Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile, it felt like the right time to send Poirot out to investigate “a darker world and vision,” Branagh says. “It's very, very striking and shadow-filled, as Venice is.”

Paranormal activity

Lightning! Spooky house! Weird kids! It’s classic ghost story bingo as we arrive in Venice on samhain, a time when spirits can be called by those who know how. “That notion for Poirot could be the height of bunkum,” says Branagh. “And I think that he's irresistibly drawn into trying to expose it. But when you are isolated, perhaps in a haunted palazzo, it can suddenly be very much more: across that long, dark night of the soul, the action taking place across a single murder-filled evening, it can challenge your previously firmly-held convictions that there's nothing out there.” Murder On The Insidious Express? Like it.

Into the haunted house

A haunted house movie needs a stellar haunted house – and this particular palazzo is one of many which fell on hard times and was repurposed when the family owning it couldn’t keep up with the upkeep anymore. “In this case the palazzo has become an orphanage, and that is part of what ties it up with a tragedy – what might be a tragic error involving children from that orphanage who were not able to get out of it at a time when they needed to,” Branagh says. There are many polazzos (polazzi?) around the city with a stern, elegantly haunted feel, Branagh says: “All of them have rich histories and the orphanage carries a dark secret, and you'll find out what that is when you see the film.”

The creepiness isn’t just summoned up for the movie either. While looking for polazzos to film in, Branagh recalls suggesting places which were flatly turned down by local crew. “‘No you can’t,’” they’d say when he asked to shoot in one polazzo. “No one can. And I would say, ‘Why?’ And they would say, ‘Because it's haunted. No, but really – it's haunted and the last 12 owners of this palazzo have died, all of suicide.’ That's enough in that city to make you a little nervous when somebody then invites you to a seance.”

Weird sister

Fresh from her Oscar triumph for Everything Everywhere All At Once, Michelle Yeoh is caught up at the centre of all the unearthly goings-on in the palazzo. “She plays a character called Joyce Reynolds who is drawn to this palazzo because she has heard voices and a character, Alina Drake, whose child has been lost – in suspicious circumstances, her mother [Alina] believes – is ready to speak to her,” Branagh explains. “But it won't be easy. And Michelle Yeoh brings this great gravity to the role of someone who finds it possible and believes that they can talk to the dead. It exacts a price, and she beautifully articulates what that could be.”

It’s orphan and games

There’s nothing like a gaggle of creepy kids in masks to amp up the uncanny factor. These are orphans who are “being treated to a Halloween party by American GIs who've brought chocolate and Halloween and are trying to start to help the city and its children recover from the nightmare of war,” explains Branagh. If you’ve been to Venice and poked around St Mark’s Square around carnival time it’ll feel familiar. “People arrive in capes and masks and they thoroughly enjoy the sinister fun of being hidden in this way,” says the director. “So in our story this tension between what is playful, what is sinister, and then ultimately what is supernatural, that's what's behind the presence of the mask people. Who in some cases may or may not bring with them supernatural overtones.” None more supernatural-looking than that one especially creepy kid lurking in Poirot’s bathroom. Who is she? “If I did tell you that,” says Branagh, “I might have to kill you.” Noted.

One final case?

We meet Poirot some time after the events of Death On The Nile, at a low ebb and uncertain of himself. “He's convinced himself he's retired,” says Branagh. “He's lost his faith, so he says, but Michael had this idea that murder and the possibility of ghosts would be irresistible to a man with that moustache, and that nose for sniffing a culprit.” This time around, loss and sadness have marked Poirot and shaken his worldview. “Along the way he has lost friends. We know from his past that his experience in the war has also isolated him. So I think he is no longer a believer. He's a man whose confidence and composure has been rocked by the intense and scary pressure that his life has put him under.” It’s that emotional state that perfectly complements such an otherworldly mystery. “He finds himself here in an engagement with what he says he doesn't believe in: in the other world. God, he thinks, has failed him. But Poirot in this film finds himself in a supernatural thriller, and the normal rules do not apply.

I moustache you a question

A Haunting In Venice

He might be sad, but Poirot’s moustache is back in full effect, as glorious and fulsome as ever it was. C’est magnifique. “We've experimented a little as we've gone through this series of films, as far as he himself we believe would do,” Branagh says. “He's pretty open about his vanity and about his relationship to hair dye and he, I think, would go through seasons of fashion in terms of quite how exotic the moustache was.” It’s particularly useful in a city where people hide their identities and intentions with masks. “I do think he wears it like his cape, like it’s his superpower,” says Branagh. “And if ever a man with a mask-like moustache had a city he was meant to be in, it's Venice. That moustache is protection: it empowers him, it puts other people off, it allows him to hide, wry and rueful, behind it.” Van Helsing has his stakes. The Ghostbusters have their proton packs. Poirot has his ‘tache. Those spirits don’t stand a chance.

A Haunting In Venice comes to UK cinemas from 15 September

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