Starring Steve Guttenberg, Daryl Hannah, Beverly D’Angelo, Liam Neeson, and Peter O’Toole.
This is the first of what will be a recurring Old Movie Review column.
Critics hated it, audiences hated it, and it currently has a 27% Rotten Tomatoes Score. But heck with all that. Some of the best movie experiences are the ones where you start with low expectations and that’s where you should start with High Spirits. It’s a fun, goofy movie that fits right in with one of America’s less celebrated holidays. So, get your green beer, or in my case, an Irish coffee, bundle up, and watch this drizzly comedy about bawdy American tourists clashing with ancient Irish ghosts and their caretakers in a dilapidated castle. (You can watch it for free, with ads, on Pluto).
Brief synopsis: A hotel proprietor is trying to save his Irish castle/ancestral home/financially failing hotel from foreclosure by pretending it’s haunted to attract tourists who are into that sort of thing. The staff dress up as second-rate spooks and try to scare and/or entertain an American tour group who are as skeptical as they are obnoxious. Shenanigans and hijinks ensue and things are going terribly for all involved until they realize…the castle is haunted by actual ghosts who are somewhat annoyed by the whole disruption.
The story revolves around two unhappily married couples: The living Jack and Sharon (played by Steve Guttenberg and Beverly D’Angelo) and the 200-year-dead couple Mary and Martin (played by Daryl Hannah and Liam Neeson) who are doomed to relive their murderous wedding night over and over. That is until Jack accidentally pierces the veil and interrupts the cycle. A bit of wife-swapping takes place and it turns out that everyone is a lot happier with their new partner regardless of their ability to produce a heartbeat. Sounds like a pretty good setup, right?
It flopped. With all the big names and a few not-so-special effects (it was only 1988 after all), it had a budget $17 million and only made $8.5. Yikes.
High Spirits was released in theaters on November 18, 1988. That was probably the first mistake. It missed the Halloween season and instead banked on holiday movie traffic, but didn’t quite land on that coveted Thanksgiving weekend made of gold (Bill Murray’s Scrooged took that slot and made out with moderate success). I don’t know about you, but as much as I love Halloween, I’m pretty sick of ghosts and ghouls come November 1st and I’m always scratching my head when movies better suited for October try to sneak in on the Christmas beat.
The second mistake, and the biggest one, was the lead characters. High Spirits relied on a spiritual romance between Jack and Mary (Guttenberg and Hannah). I never bought it and honestly never cared. They had all the chemistry of an unlit fireplace and my mind wandered (and I wandered back to the kitchen to refill my Irish coffee) whenever they were on screen.
On the other hand…Sharon and Martin (D’Angelo and Neeson), the movie’s morally bankrupt villains were lots of fun. Now these two wretches, I bought. During their scenes together, they looked like they wanted to use their teeth to either tear each other’s clothes off or rip each other apart, and probably both, and who knows in what order. By the end of the movie, I was far more hoping those two would live happily ever after in a passionate afterlife than Jack and Mary living in a happy but vanilla one.
Also, noteworthy, I have always had a thing for Peter O’Toole who plays the drunkard hard-on-his-luck hotelier Peter Plunkett. He is great, even in a silly little movie like this, and especially so when he is wittily insulting someone whether it be on the phone over finances or at banquet dinner over whiting in that acerbically charming way those brits have about them. My only complaint here is that he wasn’t on the screen enough.
Is High Spirits a great movie? Not even close. Is it a fun movie? Yes, made even better with an alcoholic beverage in hand.