I love finding hidden gems, especially of the horror-comedy variety. In the ’80s, the sub-genre was getting popular, but the few bigger titles overshadowed the many “box office bombs” along the way. High Spirits is a perfect example of a film that doesn’t get much love, and probably won’t ever. But it still provides us with a really entertaining 99 minutes as we gear up for Halloween.
Peter O’Toole plays Peter Plunkett, the owner of a rundown Irish castle, which has been converted into a bed and breakfast. Growing up in the castle himself, he doesn’t want to see it sold to an American real estate magnate and shipped off to Malibu. He gets the idea to pretend the castle is haunted and turn it into “the most haunted castle in Europe” to appeal to tourists. He and his loyal staff are preparing for a new bus load of Americans to arrive by dressing up in ghost costumes and using hokey effects to trick their visitors. Turns out, they’re really bad at it, and the handful of Americans easily see through their con and get really upset.
However, one of the tourists, Jack (Steve Guttenberg), is a fan of the castle and Peter’s act, and wants to help him out. Unfortunately, his wife, Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo), is the daughter of the business tycoon who wants to buy the castle. Jack is the most likable guy possible. His wife, on the other hand, is not a good person. She tricks Jack into thinking this trip is a second honeymoon, when really she’s there to do reconnoissance work for her father.
As you probably see coming, the castle is actually haunted, unbeknownst to Peter or any of the staff. One of Peter’s ancestors, Mary (Daryl Hannah), from two centuries ago was murdered on her wedding night by her husband Martin (Liam Neeson). The scene replays over and over again in a hidden room that’s only accessible following Peter and Jack cracking open a bottle of some old alcohol.
Jack breaks Mary out of her repetitive circle and the two fall in love. Martin discovers Sharon and they, too, fall in love. But the problem is Mary and Martin are both still ghosts. It’s made known that Jack and Sharon don’t really love each other, so their pairing off isn’t as heartbreaking or sordid as it sounds.
I knew early on where the plot was going, but momentarily lost faith in its potential after how the first 30 minutes were executed. The film is clever but disorganized, with a rough beginning. Though once the second act hits, it’s more or less a fun ride filled with some interesting twists. High Spirits establishes, or at least introduces, its own brand of Irish lore for dealing with ghosts.
Writer/director Neil Jordan was apparently unhappy with the final cut of the film, stating it was a much different movie than the one he originally shot. This might explain the occasional messiness and scattershot plot holes.
Hannah is the only real standout among the actors. Other than a couple decent performances, the acting is just average. But the characters are likable–which is far more important.
The musical score by George Fenton is one of the highlights of the movie, using motifs that I’m convinced acted as progenitors to Danny Elfman’s beloved Nightmare Before Christmas score.
High Spirits, which takes place on and around Halloween, will be added to the yearly rotation of non-scary Halloween movies in our house. Getting past the first act is the only real obstacle here. I think more people would like the film if they gave it a chance.