Hercule Poirot’s Haunted Houses

Kenneth Branagh’s latest Agatha Christie takes his drag king rendition of Hercule Poirot to drippy, trippy post-war Venice. Poirot, reticent and retired, dodges potential clients and has pastries hand-delivered to his fashionable palazzo by gondola, all while being fawned over, I mean protected, by a handsome Italian tough (Riccardo Scamarcio). But alas, his 1989-style hermitage is broken with panache by an old friend, crime writer Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey). Oliver is fascinated by a medium she cannot debunk, despite her gimlet-eyed cynicism, surely sharpened at the Houdini school of exposing flimflams. The ‘demonic’ Joyce Reynolds (an angelic Michelle Yeoh) claims to have an inside line to the other side. Poirot, who amusingly does not believe in a God that would leave the world as frustratingly disorganised as it is, diagnoses Reynolds as a particularly odious opportunist in the wake of World War Two’s horrors, but nonetheless agrees to accompany his friend to a Halloween party being held on the other side of town, where retired opera singer Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) lives in fear of the many ghosts that haunt her evocative manse. Also residents are a traumatised doctor, Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan), his precocious son Leopold (Jude Hill), and the spooky housekeeper Olga Seminoff (Camille Cottin). As it turns out, Rowena is desperate to contact her daughter Alicia, who supposedly committed suicide after the heartbreak of a broken engagement. But while Poirot and Oliver attempt to debunk Reynolds, a terrible crime is committed, with all the evidence pointing to a supernatural perpetrator.

While A Haunting In Venice is adapted from the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, it is the freest adaptation so far in this series of films. It is also thankfully the best looking one, having more or less abandoned the CGI wasteland sets of the previous two. Several narrative and visual flourishes are taken from the likes of classic English horror film Don’t Look Now and the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier. The score, by Oscar winner Hildur Guðnadóttir, is also an upgrade from the previous.

Branagh the director – who in my opinion is at his best when he’s permitted to exercise his maximalist and pop culture junkie urges – seems to relish the genre shift that Haunting necessitates, going overboard with his Dutch angles, tapestries, skeletons filled with honeycomb (!!) and tightly cut candlelit interrogations. Poirot still solves the murder(s), of course, but he very nearly loses his marbles as well, a twist in the detective narrative that Branagh the actor tackles with more interest. The mystery at the heart of Haunting is not the trickiest puzzle, but like 2022’s Glass Onion, the true pleasure of the film is the commentary on the society that could allow such brazen crimes to occur. Spoilers for the film while discussing themes below.

The crime which is ultimately solved is the death of Rowena’s daughter Alicia, whose death was not a suicide after all. Instead, Poirot realises Rowena, in a last-ditch attempt to sabotage her daughter’s engagement and keep her close, was incrementally poisoning Alicia with psychotropic honey (!!) which caused her to hallucinate constantly while being bedridden. After an accidental overdose, Rowena stages Alicia’s death to look like she was killed by the palazzo’s vengeful spirits in order to hide her awful poisoning. On being blackmailed to bankruptcy after her daughter’s death by someone with knowledge of the crime, Rowena incorrectly determines that either Joyce Reynolds or Dr. Ferrier is attempting to extort her, and murders them both. The blackmailer is later revealed to be young Leopold, who ably determines the terrible truth of Alicia’s death through pure reasoning, and needs the money to support his father.

Without knowing the precise method, a viewer familiar with the phenomenon of FDIA (Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another, though perhaps you know it as Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy) can see the motive and opportunity possessed by Rowena, a narcissistic mother with a daughter attempting to escape her control. The characters in Haunting in Venice focus on other suspects with more lurid and less explicable motivations or causes for Alicia’s death, which interestingly is very much in line with the real trajectory of medical abuse cases which fit under the umbrella of FDIA. Caretakers wielding the medical apparatus as a way to abuse their dependents are able to go undetected because of the mental disconnect from potential observers which occurs in the face of the crime’s enormity. Few imagine that what they perceive as the primordial love a parent has for a child may in fact be a belief that said child is just an extension or possession of the adult, leading to a compulsion to hurt, disable, and dehumanise when not met with compliance or gratitude. The realisation is horrifying because it destabilises the observer’s supposed understanding of healthy family dynamics, leading to a lingering question and suspicion; when did I see an unhappy child and think of them as difficult or ungrateful, simply because of what their abuser told me? When did I contribute to a child’s suffering because I can’t differentiate love from abuse?

As with Glass Onion’s stupid and privileged killer, whose crime nearly goes undetected because the act is seen to be beneath him, Rowena is able to escape suspicion and kill again because she says “I loved my daughter” without any corroboration of evidence to support the statement, but society instructs everyone to believe her. Unlike the previous occupants of her palazzo, orphans who were callously abandoned by their wardens during the plague, Rowena stuck with Alicia to the very end, and should be praised. The children locked in the palazzo and at the mercy of the plague, are nonetheless very similar to the hapless Alicia Drake: abandoned by professionals whose oversight could save her, nature is still allowed to take its course, but ‘nature’ in this case is the presumed love a mother has for her child. Only another child can decipher the crime.

Much is being made of ‘parental rights’ and what on earth they may be in relation to child rights, which continue to be unobserved and undefined. Many children are being buried as supposed suicides in the name of ‘parental rights’. This is apparently the ‘right’ to dictate a child’s gender, name, friends, extracurricular interests, religion, vaccination status, or education with impunity and without the child’s consent. This is the ‘right’ to withhold uncomfortable realities from children when the parent dislikes the prospect of a child who lives in the real world. This is the ‘right’ of the parent to the child’s private life and conversations held in confidence, or the ‘right’ of the parent to destroy books their child may encounter by chance at a public library. This is the ‘right’ to total control of another human being from the ages of 0-18 on the accident of their birth. A Haunting In Venice, however unwittingly, shows what can happen when the jurisdiction of the parent is privileged over the child’s autonomy.

Another free adaptation, Netflix’s The Fall of the House of the Usher, puts a finer point on the conundrum of ‘parental rights’ and the child as a possession or an extension of a parent’s will. Spoilers for the show in discussion of the themes below.

Roderick Usher (Bruce Greenwood) – in the original short story childless and relatively young – is rendered a father of six children and the aged patriarch of a pharmaceutical company created through sinister means. His long-time nemesis, C. Auguste ‘Auggie’ Dupin (Carl Lumbly), meets him in his childhood home for a last confession of his many crimes, and learns that Roderick’s fortune comes at a ghastly price. When he was young, Roderick made a deal with a demon (Carla Gugino) for unlimited success without terrestrial reprisals, at the cost of any children he might have. Over the course of a week, all six of his children and his young grandchild are killed in extraordinary and gothic ways, until Roderick and his sister Madeline (Mary McDonnell) finally perish. The House of Usher crumbles without trace like a megamansion on an eroding coastline.

Mike Flanagan, previously the creator of The Haunting on Hill House and The Haunting on Bly Manor, is pathologically concerned with the formation and cohesion of the family unit despite the horror and pain that it may create. Incest, abuse, and hereditary illnesses figure largely in his prolific work, despite being undercut by a firm reluctance to honestly engage with the realities of these themes beyond their allegorical value. The redemptive power of familial love and the value placed on the urge to create a family are so baked into the premise of each of Flanagan’s works as to escape the true horror of natalism. Apparently more terrifying than Roderick – happy to consign his many children to a premature death if it means he has a less lonely life – is Madeline, a woman who elects to remain childless when she realises what would happen to any of her progeny. Auggie, a black gay man who for all intents and purposes is the moral centre of the show, is marked as good precisely because he has a husband, children, and grandchildren. But Auggie and Roderick both think of their families as assets; at the Usher family grave, Auggie remarks contentedly that he is “the richest man in the world” because he has a large family which still lives.

The view of children as assets and the only true change one can make in the world is illustrated ad nauseam in all of Flanagan’s output, often at the expense of existing source material. Childlessness is an abnormal or transitory state for a character which must be explained or mitigated if said character is to be a ‘good guy’. Bisexual and promiscuous Theo (Kate Siegel) of The Haunting of Hill House is childless but advocates tirelessly for the abused children she works with as a psychologist. Her brother Steven (Michiel Huisman), reverses a vasectomy after the events of the show, having overcome his apparently irrational fear of having children. I’m certainly not sure what Shirley Jackson would have made of her namesake on the show, a control freak haunted by a brief infidelity at a coroner’s convention and still has the requisite 2.5 children she needs to try and be better for. The lesbians in The Haunting of Bly Manor care for those creepy fucking children as if they were their own, a step up from the previous nanny, who was too busy having recreational sex with a bad man and who paid for it with her life. So on and so forth. Children are the only thing adults are good for, and all else is illusion and death, blah blah blah. If one is not caring for a literal child, they better be healing their inner child, no doubt terrified by an awful adult who yet haunts them and influences them to bad behaviour. Flanagan’s work has all the moral complexity of A Christmas Carol and the cheap thrills of a fire and brimstone preacher, despite adapting some of the most interesting classics of horror lit.

The use of horror as a tool to proselytise and reinforce mainstream world views is in some ways older than the genre itself. As one of the few genres which is somewhat censored or restrained from child viewers in the mainstream, it is fascinating to see that the domain of uniquely ‘adult fears’ is so deeply entwined with child autonomy and parental control in the popular stories made for film and television today. A Haunting in Venice and The Fall of the House of Usher both explore these dynamics, but in my opinion the former comes to a vision of autonomy for all, while the latter concludes in favour of the parent in a chilling way which is not overtly the mechanism for horror in the piece. In our time, where ‘parental rights’ are being invented and enforced at the expense of the child, it is important to see if these regressive world views are being reproduced in work otherwise considered to be progressive or modern.

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