High Spirits Provides Elevated Humor and Charm
by Kristin Battestella
When investors intend to foreclose on the struggling Castle Plunkett, down on his luck owner Peter Plunkett (Peter O'Toole) and his faithful staff pretend to be the most haunted castle in Ireland for a group of American Tourists – including an on the rocks couple (Steve Guttenberg and Beverly D'Angelo), a conflicted minister (Peter Gallagher), and more. Unfortunately, the real ancestral ghosts decide to give the Yankees what they came to see, leading to frights and supernatural love triangles as the murdered Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah) and her killer betrothed Martin Brogan (Liam Neeson) interfere with the vacation plans.
Neil Jordan (Interview with a Vampire) wrote and directed 1988's High Spirits, and the leaky roof, angry phone calls, and late payments waste no time in setting the three week deadline, desperate employees, and humor mixed with bleak situation. A seemingly senile mother who talks to the unhappy castle ghosts gives them the hair brained idea to drum up some smoke and mirrors ghosts, and the zany preparations give us a chance to tour the castle complete with silly string, a mummy swinging from turret ropes, roller skating knights in armor, and rubber body parts under the tour bus. Banshees on the luggage rack, out of control horseback phantoms, buses sinking in the swamp – the fakery is off to a terrible start for these soggy tourists! Charming music adds to the shenanigans while the layered script provides passive aggressive nuances. It takes repeat viewings to catch all the under the breath asides and off the cuff quips as eclectic guests and parapsychologists nonchalantly hope the real ghosts are better than spinning beds and sham theatrics. The kids aren't impressed after seeing Nightmare on Elm Street, either, but the bungling staff take their drink, song, and home seriously – especially as mortgage connections and family histories come to light. Despite fun pacing and humor regarding real ghosts who could have saved the castle had they appeared sooner, High Spirits has a darker undercurrent with rich American imperialism ready to put the villagers out of work and phantoms who stab, chase, and terrorize. This Victorian sense of the parallel realm on the other side of the wall is not so whimsical thanks to violence, betrayals, and repeated consequences accented by somber music cues, heavy breathing zooms, and hidden point of view camerawork. The intercut supernatural action doesn't need in your face boo shocks, for the idea that the ghosts are watching from behind the stone walls and may interfere with human business is creepy enough. These encounters are not part of the tourism facade, and the dialogue carries much of the dual storytelling and show within a show winks. The ensemble does its job thanks to one sided phone calls, details on their neurosis, and conflicting personalities – developing more character than our contemporary try hard exposition and contrived conversations. Perfectly timed lighting strikes, talking horses, guests covering themselves with rugs or lampshades, and meddling, innuendo making ghosts keep High Spirits playfully self-aware. Crisscrossed couples both living and dead are dangerous yet preposterous amid the titular guide book, whistling whiting, and The Big Bopper. Scary tense moments make up for anything dated or silly because the frights and conflicts are being experienced by the characters – these aren't just hollow special effects shockers tossed out for the audience. Unfortunately, after a strong start, some of the interesting ensemble players disappear while others are featured. Indeed there are rumblings that Neil Jordan intended High Spirits to be very different from the PG-13 theatrical version, and the uneven tone, disjointed scene transitions in the second half, and reduced to irrelevant characterizations show such behind the scenes rifts and editing changes. Ghostly tuppings, inter-spectral marriages, a tempted priest, suicides, sexual consequences, and kinky, mystical reversals also suggest High Spirits was meant to be darker and more mature. Skelping possibilities on All Hallow's Eve when the spirit is moved and the flesh is willing lead to scary nuns, kissing corpses, and forbidden relations. While true love can bring the dead the back to life, interchangeable women and mixed messages rush toward a quick finale when the story, characters, and castle vignettes are entertaining themselves without the seemingly easy happy results. I think we'd all like to stay a little longer at Castle Plunkett!
Yes, he made some epics, but I don't care I love Peter O'Toole in this and Supergirl. Drunk and desperate, Peter dons a tuxedo and pretends to be a gracious host, but he's not really a showman and insists that minor unexpected inconvenience should be expected because that's what's in the brochure. He's not sorry he lied about the castle being haunted when their home is at risk, and although we don't get the sense we see him acting, O'Toole looks to be having fun with the role thanks to theatrical seriousness, over the top soliloquies, and near slapstick physicality. The for the back row elevates the winks, and when not sleeping in his roll top desk, Peter has it out with his dead dad before complaining about these fickle Americans who couldn't wait to leave over fake ghosts but now stay longer for the real ones. Steve Guttenberg's (Police Academy) Jack feels at home in Castle Plunkett, innocently enjoying the bad performances and trying to make amends with his wife. He drinks and wanders the castle, interfering with ghostly patterns and confessing how cold-hearted his wife really is. Jack is smitten by Daryl Hannah's (Splash) alluring specter Mary Plunkett, but the situation is almost too much for him – “You're a ghost, I'm an American, it would never work out.” Mary is forced to relive her murder every night, and when Jack ends her torment, she instantly falls in love. She thinks this newfound peace is a miracle that brought them together. Sir Jack saved her from being doomed forever, but Beverley D'Angelo (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) is a deliciously snobby wife more interested in Valium and sleep masks – a daddy's girl with ulterior motives for this ridiculous trip. The Brogan versus Plunkett history is just business, and it takes a lot of high maintenance creams, high strung supplements, and obnoxious curlers for Sharon's satin and pearls to look so good. For her, Castle Plunkett is a nightmare; everyone hates her and Sharon is ready to leave until big, brutish, and bemusingly wicked Liam Neeson (Taken) pops up in her bathtub. He's cruel to Mary, smelly, squishing, and jealously stabs her but gives Sharon really great back rubs so she's not too sorry about ditching Jack when Martin takes an interest in her wee vixen.
Chaste soon to be priest Peter Gallagher (While You Were Sleeping), however, is having second thoughts on what was supposed to be this spiritual retreat before his final vows. He has to cover himself with his collar when stormy spirits rip away their clothes, and the impure thoughts mount when watching the marshmallow voiced guest Jennifer Tilly (Bride of Chucky) exercise. Evil nuns make Brother Tony think twice – a chilling scene with a smoking crotch that assures he gets the message. Tilly's Miranda is here solo after breaking up with a boyfriend who booked the trip. He's a hairdresser who devil worships on the side and ran away with a monk instead, but Miranda has no problem innocently flirting with a priest thanks to some kinky innuendo and scantily clad moments. Unfortunately, their story seems to get shorted during High Spirits. At times, they aren't present even in group scenes, and with these characters' backgrounds, it's a missed opportunity to further explore Catholicism, local folklore, and New Age thoughts on the ghostly events. Despite enough scares and nothing to keep them at Castle Plunkett, Tony and Miranda seem there just to round out the mayhem alongside likewise underutilized parapsychologist Martin Ferrero (Jurassic Park) and his family, who occasionally object and scream over the kids in peril. Delightful Mrs. Plunkett Liz Smith (The Vicar of Dibley) knows her son is an idiot and fills in the details on tupping with dead relatives, but she and her husband Ray McAnally (My Left Foot) deserved more. In the end, High Spirits is blessed with too much of a fine ensemble and no way to use them all. Fortunately, on location castles with rugged stone, arch windows, sweeping fireplaces, hidden nooks, enchanting crannies, maze like corridors, and winding staircases provide an excellent backdrop for all High Spirits' possibilities. Phantom winds, billowing curtains, cobwebs, and dust add to the four poster beds, antiques, throne chairs, tapestries, candles, portraits, and clutter. When you're doing a castle haunt theme for your Halloween house, this is what it should look like! Rainy coasts provides dreary amid perilous swamps and overgrown greenery. The rough and worn, moody blue scale comes in the chilly stone and bleak skies – unlike over saturation, this feels old, drafty, and natural with bitter hotel staff dressed in ratty layers and stretched out sweaters. Zany buses and whimsical fiddle music provides impish charm, for even the hokey, two dimensional marionette monsters and fake tentacles offer drunken parody, child fears, and sloshing water drenching everybody. That Pan Am flight to Ireland also has one of those wonderfully huge and unrealistic cinematic flight cabins! Boob tube television poltergeists, retro eighties does forties silky blouses, and voluminous ladies hair also look fine, and the women enchant with gray costumes, wispy Regency frocks, white slips, black lingerie, and red dresses as the innocent and pure fun escalates to more saucy cuts as the ghostly encounters increase. Bemusing ghost trickery, appearing and disappearing transitions, going through objects effects, and lighting pops accent the ethereal sheen, catacombs, and zombie corpses climbing out of the walls. Today's productions often work so hard in trying to be spooky or snarky, but who knew some ghostly body glitter could go such a long way?
While there may be a few adult scenes and scares that could be too much for young viewers, High Spirits is ripe for re-watching. Though I loved this in my youth, some of the critical panning is not undeserved – High Spirits could have been a flawless classic instead of just late night Halloween fun. However, despite apparent editing problems or behind the scenes changes, High Spirits balances the humor for the family, ghostly spoof turnabouts, and mature undertones for wise adult audiences thanks to a delightful cast, heaps of atmosphere, cheeky wit, and spooky but carefree charm.