Written and Directed by: Neil Jordan
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Daryl Hannah, and Steve Guttenberg
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Madam, for you I missed my wedding for the first time in years, that's how much I want you. Sure, I know I'm a ghost and a murderer but forget about all that."
Neil Jordan has always been a fun filmmaker, at least in the sense that you're never quite sure where his whims will take him. His career having encompassed everything from gothic fantasies to Depression-era screwball comedies, it’s fair to say his output can be rather unpredictable, if not downright erratic. Never was that more apparent than it was in 1988. Coming off of the success of serious-minded neo-noir Mona Lisa, Jordan decided to jaunt off to his native Ireland and film High Spirits, a complete lark that attempts to combine Shakespearian rowdiness with the effects-laden supernatural comedies made popular by 1980s Hollywood.
The result is a film that got away from its director in more ways than one, as Tristar stepped in before it ever went before cameras and then swiped it from him once it went into the editing bay. What’s left apparently bears little resemblance to Jordan’s original concept: rather than a wry film that examines and pokes fun at his native land’s history and tradition, High Spirits is a hollow shriek show that's overly reliant on broad, silly humor.
Viewers can find the obvious kernel of Jordan’s idea in the setup, which finds Pete Plunkett (Peter O’Toole) the owner of a dilapidated Irish bed and breakfast, staring down an enormous debt to an Irish-American businessman. In hopes of rejuvenating business, he concocts a scheme to turn his castle into the most haunted resort in Ireland. With a truckload of American marks in tow, he and his troupe embark for the countryside with high hopes, only to meet with utter disaster when the show goes laughably awry. Luckily (or perhaps unluckily), Plunkett and company receive an assist from the actual ghosts haunting the place after all.
Once Plunkett’s façade crumbles, High Spirits begins to unravel with it. While the fallout isn’t subtle or very clever and relies on slapstick pyrotechnics, the situation is sturdy and relatable. O’Toole is clearly having a good time in the role, yet he doesn’t mug so much as to be disingenuous. You sense a slight sadness in this once proud Irishman who might lose a place—and people—who are dear to him. Too bad it all but flies out of the window once the real story settles in. Somehow, Plunkett’s plight becomes a prelude to a bawdy tale involving the recurring spirits of a jealous husband (Liam Neeson) who murdered his wife (Daryl Hannah) 200 years earlier. Doomed to repeat their fateful, bloodstained wedding night, the two ghosts become entangled with a bickering American couple (Steve Guttenberg and Beverly D’Angelo) who may be able to break the spell.
It’s understandable if you’re wondering just how Plunkett and the ill-fated bed and breakfast fits in with all of these shenanigans. The film itself certainly barely makes a case, as it becomes a tertiary concern at best, ranking somewhere behind the American couple’s desire to fuck their ghastly counterparts and the outlandish (and only sometimes humorous) hijinks involving the rest of the cast. Even the revelation that D’Angelo is the daughter of the businessman preying on Plunkett becomes an afterthought (that she also shares the same surname as the spirit trying to bed her is also no concern). Calling High Spirits unfocused might be too kind—schizophrenia might be a more accurate diagnosis.
You’d expect the scatterbrained approach to work in favor of such a zany film, but it hardly feels like an actual approach. Instead, what’s left of High Spirits feels like studio-repurposed scraps and a desperate appeal to a younger American audience. What else explains the decision to diminish Peter O’Toole in favor of Steve Guttenberg and Daryl Hannah? The former at least provides a reliable anchor with his finicky, exasperated shtick, the latter is about as phony as Plunkett’s haunted castle. Barely even affecting an Irish accent and going big, broad, and shrill, Hannah never dials into the same wavelength as the rest of the cast. Most everyone else acts like jovial goofs; Hannah feels like she’s just taking the piss out of the whole thing.
Otherwise, the slapdash final product undermines a hell of a cast. D’Angelo is sneakily great as Guttenberg’s cynical, Valium-popping wife, a role several steps removed from her turns as the Griswold matriarch. High Spirits also provides Neeson—who has since gone on to become one of Hollywood’s best ass-kickers—with an opportunity to let loose and show the comedic chops that have gone unutilized lately. Don’t be surprised when he begins playing against type in the next few years. Despite being shoved into the background, the rest of the supporting cast is fun as well—you just wish they had better material to work with since they’re saddled with some pretty base humor.
A comedy of errors yielding to preternatural romance and couple-swapping feels positively Shakespearian, but hardly any of the Bard’s wit is intact, save for the occasional quip (“You’re a ghost, I’m an American. It’ll never work out,” Guttenberg deadpans in reaction to Hannah’s proposal). In its place is a rollercoaster ride through various effects work. This, at least, is top-notch and delivers some rollicking set-pieces, including one that features most of the cast fleeing from various ghosts and goblins as All Hallows Eve approaches. Even this timely setting is incidental: here was a perfect opportunity to dig into the traditional Irish roots of the holiday, yet it’s only treated as an excuse to stage a special effects extravaganza.
Indeed, a lot of Jordan’s original intent seems to have been mangled in translation here. His preoccupation with the struggle between modern and historical Ireland bears little fruit beyond the obvious notion that the latter has returned to literally haunt the former. Perhaps it reveals that the likes of Plunkett are quick to monetize tradition without truly understanding it in order to appease foreign influences; even more disconcerting is that the film itself fell into this same trap. High Spirits isn’t an Irish film so much as it’s an 80s Hollywood blockbuster dressed up for St. Patrick’s Day. It’s little wonder that Jordan disowned it and left it to languish in obscurity, a fate that hasn’t deterred Scream Factory from adding it to its ranks. Debuting on Blu-ray alongside Vampire’s Kiss, High Spirits has been nicely restored in HD, which does wonders for its slick production design. Only a trailer serves as a supplement, so any questions about the film’s tumultuous production go unacknowledged. This is too bad because it’d be intriguing to see just what in the hell Jordan was originally up to with High Spirits.
Even though its humor rarely lands for me, I want to admire it for its existence—certainly, nobody is making big-budget Hollywood movies riffing on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ghostbusters anymore. Rent it!
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