View to a Kill: four macabre films that influenced the look of A Haunting in Venice

Michelle Yeoh is at the scene of the crime in A Haunting in Venice. — Credit… 20th Century Studios
Michelle Yeoh is at the scene of the crime in A Haunting in Venice. Credit… 20th Century Studios

A Haunting in Venice cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos takes us behind the lens with four films that inspired the visual style of the latest Hercule Poirot mystery.

This story was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in accordance with the DGA contract ratified with AMPTP in June 2023. Without the labor of writers and actors currently on strike, many of the films covered on Journal wouldn’t exist.

While Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile followed in the footsteps of previous cinematic adaptations of those Agatha Christie novels, the third entry in his Hercule Poirot franchise, A Haunting in Venice, is a tale never-before-witnessed on the big screen. More exciting than that distinction, Venice adds a little gothic spookiness to the mystery, secluding us in a dark palazzo far away from its transportation-themed predecessors.

At the centerpiece of this mystery is one of the most tried-and-true gothic scenes: a murder that occurs at a séance. From Ministry of Fear to The Others, the flickering candle set at the center of a table to communicate with the dead is one of the richest images in any genre. Letterboxd members haven’t hesitated to note the distinct shadowy look of Venice, as Fiona writes “I enjoyed the visuals so much” and calls them “a massive step up” from the bright color palettes of the first two films. Bruno calls Venice, “a very entertaining mystery with really creative cinematography,” while Matt applauds the “aggressive camera angles” in heightening the “pulpy” proceedings.

Branagh’s film may not necessarily be straight horror, but its ominous atmosphere meant it was no surprise when his longtime cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shared with us a few classic macabre films that influenced the look of their most recent collaboration. The Greek Cypriot Zambarloukos, who it must be mentioned also lensed Mamma Mia!, told us all about certain sequences he shared with Branagh to give A Haunting in Venice a different shade of Poirot. If by the end of reading his words on these visual masterpieces you’re still on the fence about jetting out to theaters, we’ll remind you that this also happens to be Michelle Yeoh’s first appearance on screen since her historic Best Actress win for Everything Everywhere All at Once. Let the séance begin.

In Cold Blood (1967)

Written and directed by Richard Brooks, based on the book by Truman Capote.
Cinematography by Conrad L. Hall.

“From its first image of a cigarette being lit on the back of a bus, this masterpiece grips you in a way no other film does. It’s not a ghost story, but it is a brilliant thriller about an unrepentant killer. Also, the crime aspect of the story was very relevant to an Agatha Christie adaptation to me. I believe it’s one of the best photographed films of all time, but it has a killer score by Quincy Jones, razor-sharp editing by Peter Zinner, and, of course, it’s a Truman Capote book. It is an incredible collection of talent.

The attention to detail and the collaborative perfection of the filmmaking is a benchmark for me. The cherry on top, as a reference, is that it has a denouement scene…. A rain-drenched monologue and confession at the very end before the protagonist goes to the gallows… It’s the very definition of noir.”

Seconds (1966)

Directed by John Frankenheimer, written by Lewis John Carlino based on the book by David Ely.
Cinematography by James Wong Howe.

“Its opening credit sequence, with designs by Saul Bass, is just remarkable. Again, a very haunted sequence… I showed it to Ken, and he immediately loved it and asked me how that sequence was shot. I said that it was made by photographing the reflection of the actor in a flexible mirror, and they found random twists in the mirrored sheet that created those distorted images. Ken loved the simplicity of that effect and its creation being so non-digital. The whole film has these themes of memory and insanity and a completely groundbreaking use of camera perspective. All the mounts on actors for those subjective moving shots became an inspiration for some of the shots in A Haunting in Venice.”

Kwaidan (1964)

Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, written by Yôko Mizuki based on a book by Lafcadio Hearn.
Cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima.

Kwaidan is a haunting film, very ethereal. A film that boldly lives on the edge of what is imagined and what is perceived… You spookily don’t know what is real and what is not at all times. It is also an amazing collection of great moral stories that deal with ghosts, guilt and a final punishment. The minimalism is poetic, the imagery is sublime and the storytelling is masterfully suspenseful.”

The Innocents (1961)

Directed by Jack Clayton, written by Wiliam Archibald and Truman Capote based on a short story by Henry James.
Cinematography by Freddie Francis.

“We watched The Innocents with Ken on a big screen to take in its glorious storytelling. It is timeless and impeccable. It is truly one of the greatest ghost stories committed to film, even today, and it was made in 1961. It has a visual eloquence and a simplicity that genuinely makes you feel the supernatural aspect of the story without any reliance on special effects. I think it’s the in-camera aspect of the filmmaking that completely enthralled Ken and me. It became a key reference for A Haunting in Venice.”

A Haunting in Venice’ is in theaters worldwide from 20th Century Studios.

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