Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole, Club Paradise) is the lord of a very badly declining castle in Ireland. With his creditors beating down his door, a remark from his eccentric mother (Liz Smith) about the ghosts of the castle gets him scheming. Soon he’s welcoming (and planning to scare the pants off) a bus load of American tourists, including unhappily married yuppies Jack (Steve Guttenberg, Police Academy) and Sharon Brogan Crawford (Beverly D’Angelo, Maid to Order), spacy Miranda (Jennifer Tilly, She’s My Girl), conflicted soon-to-be priest Brother Tony (Peter Gallagher, While You Were Sleeping), and parapsychologist Malcom (Martin Ferrero) and his wife and children. When Plunkett’s efforts are exposed, all seems lost, until a drunk Jack interrupts the ghosts of Mary Plunkett Brogan (Daryl Hannah, Roxanne) and her murderous husband Martin Brogan (Liam Neeson, Rob Roy). For the last two hundred years the pair have re-enactd Martin’s murder of Mary every night, but Jack’s interruption breaks the spell-and it isn’t long before Jack and Mary are falling in love, generations of Plunketts are haunting the guests, and Martin is eying Sharon…
Writer/Director Neil Jordan’s career ping pongs between artier films like In the Company of Wolves, dramas like The Crying Game, and oddly populist supernatural films, such as Interview with the Vampire. High Spirits is firmly in the latter category, but it feels like someone took control away from Jordan and tilted the film towards one of the standbys of the 1980s, high-concept comedy. All of the special effects hijinks get in the way of the story that Jordan may have tried to tell, of which we get glimpses. The Plunketts and Brogans are dueling clans, but though we can guess their troubles started with Martin’s murder of Mary, the film never comes out and says it-and it’s curious indeed that Martin ends up with Sharon, who is a distant relative!
One suspects that Jordan’s version (and Jordan does claim that the version released is completely different from the version he shot) might also focus more on Peter Plunkett and his band of locals, who don’t get a terribly large amount of screen time, while at the same time the Jack/Mary relationship is also very sketchy, hinging on “instant love”, which isn’t a problem in a fantasy story, exactly, but when your leads are the chemistry free and wooden Guttenberg and Hannah the formulaic nature of the relationship becomes more apparent. Emphasizing the leads blandness are the devilish Sharon and Martin, making this yet another movie where the “villains” (though everyone gets a chance at redemption by the end) are more interesting than the heroes. Whatever the details of Jordan’s “director’s” cut, the film as commonly available goes for too many elements at once-farce about quirky locals fleecing rich Americans, light spoof of ghost stories and feuds, odd sex comedy with ghosts, horrible attempt to make another Splash–for it to work. None of the elements gel, or is done particularly well, and too few characters get enough screen time to develop much of a personality, and the ones that do are played by Guttenberg and Hannah, which dooms them to be cardboard.
All of this being said, if you grew up on 80s effects driven fantasy/comedy films, especially if you saw this during its days as a cable staple, you could do a lot worse than to revisit it. Stock characters and bland leads are (somewhat) made up for by the occasional decent effect, gag, or inventive ghost moment (the scene where the 2 dimensional theater scenery comes to life, for example), and moments of life by the supporting cast. High Spirits is best viewed by those who enjoy watching failed efforts from interesting directors and fans of pleasant but not particularly remarkable 1980s comedies (being a fan of O’Toole, D’Angelo and/or Neeson probably doesn’t hurt either).