In Neil Jordan’s 1988 film High Spirits, Peter O’Toole stars as Peter Plunkett, last heir and owner of Plunkett Castle in Ireland. Peter is desperately trying to drum up tourism in the castle, as maintenance costs and an outstanding mortgage are threatening to take his ancestral home out of his hands. His mother (Liz Smith) makes an offhand comment about how his ancestors are upset about the state the castle is in — implying that she still talks to them actively — and Peter hits upon an idea: advertise Plunkett Castle as being the most haunted castle in Ireland. Have the crew rig up special effects and fake being ghosts to scare the tourists, and they’ll come by the droves to be frightened in the night.
The first batch of American guests arrives a few days before Halloween, and things immediately go awry. The guests see through the ruse immediately, realizing the “ghosts” are just cheap parlor tricks… but we all know what must inevitably happen after that, don’t we?
Expressing skepticism right before Halloween is just asking for a visitation.
The alpha plot for this film involves an American couple, Jack and Sharon Crawford, played by Steve Guttenberg (best known for the Police Academy films) and Beverly D’Angelo (best known for the Vacation films). They’ve been undergoing marital strife, and it gets worse when Jack discovers that Sharon arranged their “second honeymoon” to be at Plunkett Castle so she could check it out on behalf of her father, the man holding the mortgage. Jack, unlike most of the guests, actually enjoyed the fake ghost show… and he is the first to encounter the real thing, when he interrupts the nightly murder of Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah) by her jealous husband-to-be Martin Brogan (Liam Neeson). What ensues is a bit of a romantic comedy with a supernatural flair.
The film has a large number of recognizable, if minor, actors and actresses in it. Other guests include a parapsychologist played by Martin Ferrero, the lawyer who gets eaten by a T-Rex in Jurassic Park, and his wife, played by Connie Booth of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame. Additionally, Peter Gallagher (who in recent years has been a major character in Covert Affairs) plays a priest-in-training who finds himself tempted by wild young woman played by Jennifer Tilly. These actors all do a great job, and their scenes are entertaining, but it does start to feel like the movie is stretched a little thin trying to juggle it all with the main plot. Fortunately, it feels more like these storylines are abbreviated rather than hampering the more important stories.
O’Toole and Guttenberg getting high from spirits in High Spirits.
Steve Guttenberg’s role is essentially as an everyman, reacting to the strangeness going on around him, and he does well in the role. Jack’s fighting with Sharon, awkward flirting with Mary, and friendly banter with Martin all seem natural. Daryl Hannah is arguably a bit under-utilized as Mary; while she has a lot of screen time, she’s playing a romantic comedy lead that doesn’t call on her to do much comedy. Still, she’s good at it. Beverly D’Angelo is a bit more fun to watch; she excels as the catty Sharon. But perhaps the funniest character in the romance plot is also the most surprising, which is Liam Neeson as Martin Brogan. Though he’s been killing his bride-to-be for 200 years, at this point all the malice has gone out of it; he does it only because he’s cursed to do it. With Jack’s interference, Martin becomes more boisterous and jovial and starts looking for his own way out of the curse. Peter O’Toole, of course, is also a highlight of the film. His dry delivery adds a lot to the comedy, and his character also gets a fairly touching scene with the ghost of his father (Ray McAnally).
The plot is fairly predictable, with perhaps one or two exceptions, and at an hour and a half there isn’t enough time to justify the side plots with the other guests. But High Spirits is still a fairly enjoyable film, with charming characters and a few laughs. People looking for a non-scary Halloween movie could do worse.