Film Review: High Spirits (1988)

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(source: tmdb.org)

Irish director Neil Jordan became famous for his gritty contemporary urban dramas like Mona Lisa or The Crying Game, which are arguably his best work. Whenever he strayed from that genre territory, especially towards the realms of horror or fantasy, results were less than satisfactory. One of the worst examples is his 1988 fantasy comedy High Spirits.

The plot is set in dilapidated Irish castle whose owner Peter Plunkett (played by Peter O’Toole) is desperate for money after learning that it might lose the property over unpaid debts to Irish American businessman Brogan. In desperation he gets the idea to quickly convert the castle into theme park, trying to woo potential visitors with the claim that the place is haunted. First group of visitors, however, includes Brogan’s daughter Sharon (played by Beverly D’Angelo), who is quite sceptical towards such claims, as well as her frustrated husband Jack Crawford (played by Steve Guttenberg). Plunkett, on the other hand, tries to maintain the illusion by improvising various contraptions and tricks, as well as employing his staff to play ghosts, banshees and other supernatural creatures. Guests aren’t convinced nor amused, but everything changes when Jack witnesses real ghosts – Mary Plunkett Brogan (played by Daryl Hannah), a woman who was two centuries earlier murdered by her madly jealous husband Martin Brogan (played by Liam Neeson). The ghosts reconstruct the event each night but Jack actually falls in love in Mary and succeeds, at least temporarily, to break the spell. At the same time, Martin falls in love with Sharon.

The best thing that can be said about High Spirits is that the film is watchable. This is mostly due to Jordan enjoying the large budget in his first Hollywood production. Those resources are quite visible in the use of Shepperton studios, impressive production design, costumes and special effects that are mostly quite convincing for 1980s standards. When it comes to actual plot and characters, Jordan, who also wrote the script, fails. An idea to mix ghost story with broad farce was sound, but Jordan didn’t execute it well and many of the jokes and gags fell flat. Even worse is the set of poorly written supporting characters that waste some good talents like Peter Gallagher or Jennifer Tilly. Even worse is Steve Guttenberg who simply lacks chemistry with Daryl Hannah, who is mostly unconvincing as ethereal beauty (and later got Razzie nomination for her work). Liam Neeson is more effective in the role of a ghost who is insane and randy at the same time. Peter O’Toole delightfully overacts in his scenes, but he is simply not used well. Jordan later tried to distance himself from High Spirits, claiming that his original work was much darker or more subversive, and that the studio edited it into conventional family-friendly version against his will. Whether this is true or not, many who watch this film will have at least some understanding for Jordan’s claims.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

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