High Spirits

High Spirits. Something 1988.
High Spirits. Palace Pictures 1988.

Before watching the movie:

I’d never heard of this movie when I came across it, and to be honest, I didn’t put a lot of thought into enqueuing it. I searched for a few widely known Peter O’Toole movies and this came up as a similar title. Comedy, ghosts, Irish castle, I’ll take it. He seems to have been in a lot of odd movies later in his career, which are coming to the surface first.

I’ve only recently begun to notice the… charisma(?) of Steve Guttenberg, and I’m reluctant to classify the strengths of Daryl Hannah just yet for fear of putting her in a box.

The flying bed in the poster reminds me far too much of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

After watching the movie:

Peter Plunkett’s family castle hotel is in dire straits and in need of a cash inflow, so he trades on the castle’s ghostly legends to advertise as the “most haunted place on Earth”, with the staff pushed into feebly staging supernatural visages, riling up the real ghosts. Jack Crawford would like his wife to maybe let him touch her while staying in the castle on their second honeymoon.  And the ghost of Mary Plunkett has been getting stabbed to death by her husband nightly for 200 years, until Jack gets involved.

The ghost effects aren’t really anything I haven’t seen before, but they’re done well and likely precede most of what I’m familiar with. In particular, the effect of actors passing through other actors predates the Star Trek episode that used the same style by four years, and surprisingly, Ghost, which I think also used it, by two years. They may have been used by more serious horror films earlier, but none I recall seeing. They suit the story very well, though the hand-drawn demon animation late in the movie took me out of it. To my knowledge, the only time hand-drawn animation can look like it belongs in a live-action world is when it’s some kind of natural effect like electrical sparks.

This may be splitting semantic hairs, but I think “charm” applies better to Guttenberg than “charisma”. Charisma seems to imply a self-confidence that Jack doesn’t have. Daryl Hannah’s range seems underrated in my knowledge of her standing. After the leading couple, it’s interesting to see who gets higher billing vs. their ability and how they’re remembered now. Of course, Peter O’Tool gets top billing, and makes a meal of a role that doesn’t really have much impact on the story past the inciting incident. Beverly D’Angelo has a bigger role than I expected, but she doesn’t seem to be remembered now for anything other than the National Lampoon’s Vacation series, and meanwhile Liam Neeson’s credit is nearly a footnote, but he’s a fairly major character, quite enjoyable to watch, and of course is now legendary.

This could probably have done with another draft or two, as there are some logical and storytelling flaws that detracted from my enjoyment. The audience is clearly supposed to find Jack’s wife Sharon unsympathetic at first because she’s quite vocal about being repelled by sex, which is rather dismissive of asexuality, but I give such things a pass before the late 90s or so. It also paints Mary’s husband Martin as a disgusting man, but the movie is then so eager to pair the spares that the attraction between Sharon and Martin is halfway forced and halfway just casting a bad light on Jack and Mary. I didn’t notice the proximity to Halloween being brought up until it was introduced as the only time some magic could happen… and it just so happens to be tomorrow night. The story also deliberately raises some questions about whether humans and ghosts can have a mixed-spectral relationship and whether Jack can love Mary without her beauty and then sidesteps the first question (with almost but not quite as creepy a solution to the zero-body problem as The Man With Two Brains) and just utterly fails to resolve the second.

Somewhere along the way, the point of this movie shifts from being a haunted love story to being a phantasmagoria of spooky fun, and I can’t begrudge it too much for trying to give the audience a haunted house experience. It’s not the soundest story, but it tries to be fun, funny, and a little bit sweet, and it delivers on that.

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