Depending on how much into Halloween you're into, spooky season is either already here or just over a week away. Regardless of where you fall on this first weekend of Fall, two new mystery-fueled movies serve as an aperitif before we plunge into the shadowy depths of October. One is a French-Canadian co-production that's had some high-profile festival premieres; the other is the latest in what some film buffs hope is a continuing string of Agatha Christie adaptations for the big screen, going into its second week of release.
Let's see if these forays into fraud, deceit and murder most foul live up to their promise.
“The Origin of Evil”: You have to feel for Stéphane, the driven go-getter at the center of this portrait of shady machinations set in a world of wealth and luxury. By day, she packs anchovies at a fish plant, and at night, she goes home to a landlady who's letting her stay in her estranged daughter's bedroom. In between work and home, she takes a long trip to the women's penitentiary to check in on her girlfriend, who is anxiously awaiting her release, at least when she's able to keep her temper in check.
But Stéphane, played by Laure Calamy from Netflix's “Call My Agent!” envisions a change in her fortunes, and she musters up the courage to make a fateful phone call. One ferry ride later, she comes face to face with Serge Dumontet (Jacques Weber), a well-to-do restaurant magnate and a pillar of the community on the island of Porquerolles in southeastern France. She introduces herself as his illegitimate daughter, and the aging patriarch, who bears a resemblance to “Succession's” Logan Roy, appears to believe her wholeheartedly.
More skeptical are the rest of Serge's immediate family: his spendthrift wife Louise (Dominique Blanc), his career-driven daughter George (Doria Tiller) and shutterbug granddaughter Jeanne (Céleste Brunnquell). They circle Stéphane like birds of prey, ready to strike. She's barely long enough at the Dumontets' sprawling villa before she's ushered into a boat and back to the mainland by George, who is more than a little annoyed by the new arrival.
But nothing is as this seems in this would-be family reunion, and director/co-screenwriter Sébastien Marnier warns viewers not to believe everything they see or hear in this opulent den of vipers. Stéphane initially comes across as a wide-eyed audience surrogate, seemingly in over her head in her attempts to bond with her dad and his deeply dysfunctional clan. Then the red flags begin to pop up, and the film begins to resemble something out of a Patricia Highsmith novel, with a dash of class warfare and social satire that brings to mind “Gone Girl” and Rian Johnson's “Knives Out” movies.
Or so Marnier would have us think. Because under its manicured surfaces, “The Origin of Evil” is a far more lurid affair. At first, it comes across as the kind of elegantly cruel story that Claude Chabrol, the French Hitchcock, would have gravitated toward if he were still with us, but that's not the way things shake out here. This 2022 selection at the Toronto and Venice film festivals is trashy pulp sold as cinema of quality, which is not the putdown it sounds like. If anything, one wishes Marnier, working from a screenplay credited to him and Fanny Burdino, would have doubled down on the snippy jabs and ridicule of the not-so-idle rich.
But this is a potboiler where you can hear the plot's wheels cranking noisily. On top of that, we're asked to take these duplicitous mannequins seriously. The results are an alternately gripping and ludicrous mix of domestic melodrama and psychological thriller that lacks the gravity Marnier was going for but thankfully knows when to let its hair down. It's the kind of middlebrow Eurotrash that's most effective when it dares to be tawdry. It's savage in mostly good ways.
“A Haunting in Venice”: Whereas this waterlogged period whodunit is all bark and no bite, but not without its bright spots. The third, and least, of Kenneth Branagh's Agatha Christie adaptations jumps forward in time from last year's “Death on the Nile,” which was set in the 1930s, to the titular Italian city in 1947, itself a change from the late-1960s setting of Christie's “Hallowe'en Party,” the novel Branagh is adapting here.
Or, more accurately, taking as inspiration and point of departure for the Oscar-winning filmmaker to follow his muse. Branagh once again sports the bushy mustache, though it's not quite as oversized as in his “Murder on the Orient Express.” Poirot lives in self-imposed exile and insists he has retired, but then a face from the past, mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey, diving right in), pays him a visit and dangles a proposal too good to resist: join her for an All Hallows' Eve party, followed by a séance conducted by self-described spiritualist and medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), at a deteriorating palazzo that is said to be haunted.
It would be the thrill of a lifetime for Ariadne's old pal Poirot to uncover “The Unholy Mrs. Reynolds” as a con artist and a charlatan who leeches off the grief of those with enough coin to afford her services. Off they go, unaware of the dark and stormy night that awaits them.
The pair meet the unfortunate souls attending this alleged brush with the supernatural: the renowned soprano who owns the palazzo (Kelly Reilly), mourning the daughter who, some say, went insane and jumped to her death; a doctor and war vet who is nursing his own demons, accompanied by his precocious son (“Belfast's” Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, once again playing father and son); the devoutly religious housekeeper (Camille Cottin) who thinks the medium is kicking a hornet's nest by reaching out to the dead; the brother and sister (Ali Khan and Emma Laird) who assist Mrs. Reynolds and dream of crossing the Atlantic; Poirot's bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio), who has his own secrets that will come to light; and the conceited, vain, standoffish and quite handsome boyfriend (Kyle Allen) of the palazzo owner's daughter.
So far, so promising. Branagh reins in the excesses that characterized his first two Poirot outings and limits the bulk of the film to its gallantly run-down property. Its backstory, involving abandoned orphans and a ghastly fate, lives up to the movie's title.
The setup is intriguing, the cast commit to their roles with aplomb, and the vistas of Venice in all its splendor cast a spell. But once the night takes an abrupt, deadly turn and, in the words of another iconic detective, the game is afoot, “A Haunting in Venice” goes limp, awash in Dutch tilts, distorted angles and a couple of decent jump-scares that never amount to genuine frights.
At its core, the movie is still a tidy whodunit, but Branagh is hellbent on inserting elements of horror. With the exception of his inspired noir romance “Dead Again,” it never ends well when he takes that route. (Remember the misfire that was “Mary Shelley's Frankenstein”? I try not to.) In “Venice,” he strives to create an unsettling atmosphere but ends up hitting the same portentious note over and over again. Fey gets some of the best lines from Michael Green's screenplay, but when things grow heavy, you can feel the charm and wit seeping away.
Branagh is ultimately unable to make the single setting where the characters find themselves trapped feel interesting because he's trying way too hard to generate chills, something he wasn't particularly good at in the first place. On top of everything, he treats the one surprising aspect of the narrative, an eleventh-hour reveal, almost as an afterthought.
Those apparitions haunting “A Haunting in Venice” are the ghosts of better murder mysteries. And yet, if you ask me whether or not Branagh should continue making more Poirot movies, the answer is a resounding yes. As for this repetitive and uneven entry, a sentence that the late Bill Cosford wrote when reviewing “Alien 3” (a film he liked, mind you) comes to mind: “It captures the night, but not the nightmare.”
“The Origin of Evil” is showing through Thursday at Coral Gables Art Cinema and AMC Aventura 24. “A Haunting in Venice” is now playing in wide release in theaters across South Florida, including Regal South Beach, Silverspot Cinema in downtown Miami, the IPIC in North Miami Beach and The Landmark at Merrick Park in Coral Gables.