Neil Jordan is the kind of filmmaker that does better in smaller-budgeted situations. As projects like In Dreams and Interview With The Vampire show, his style of filmmaking clashes with the demands of big-budget fare and the finished product often ends up corrupted by studio tinkering. Before those films, he made an oddball horror/comedy/romance item called High Spirits that set the tone for his future struggles with the money men. Like the films mentioned earlier in this paragraph, it looks great but is all over the map in terms of storytelling and tone.
The script, penned by Jordan himself, centers on the travails of Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole), an aging hotel manager who is about to lose his family’s castle/hotel due to financial woes. He decides to reinvent it as a destination for fans of the paranormal and gets his staff to concoct some fake haunts. The first guests include henpecked hubby Jack (Steve Guttenberg), who brings his shrewish wife Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo). Other guests include Jennifer Tilly playing – you guessed it – a vampish maneater and Peter Gallagher as a seminary student about to take his vows.
The fake ghosts make little impression but the chaos brings out some real ghosts in the form of Mary (Daryl Hannah) and Martin (Liam Neeson), a couple forever doomed to repeat Martin’s wedding night murder of Mary. However, Jack accidentally gets between the two and finds himself falling for ghostly Mary. A mixture of pratfalls, lite-horror shocks and romance follows before all of the haunted details are sorted out.
By the time High Spirits hit the theater, Jordan had disowned it: he was locked out of the editing room and rejected the producer’s edit of his work. It would be interesting to know what is on the cutting room floor but what remains shows the film has problems that go beyond editing choices. Jordan goes for an over-the-top mood from the beginning, relying heavily on slapstick humor and performances that are mostly pitched over-the-top. When you start at such a frenetic peak, you have nowhere to go – and as the film continues, the wackiness quickly becomes forced.
On the positive side, Jordan’s approach isn’t dull, as something is happening every few minutes. High Spirits also benefits from a handsome sense of production design and technical craftsmanship : the interior sets are truly lavish and veteran English FX whiz Derek Meddings provides some impressive large-scale physical effects (the visual effects are more hit and miss). As for the performances, Guttenberg is a bit stale as a leading man, Hannah is lovely but miscast and D’Angelo gives a lot of energy to a thankless role. However, O’Toole brings a lot of charm to the film, even when the dialogue is lackluster, and Neeson does his best to bring a bit of gravitas to another silly role.
In short, High Spirits definitely fits into the “big budget misfire” part of Neil Jordan’s filmography. It’s oddly watchable if you’re in a patient mood – but be prepared for a weird mixture of special effects and broad humor.
Blu-Ray Notes: This film was recently released by Scream Factory as part of a two-for-one blu-ray that also includes Vampire’s Kiss. The presentation of High Spirits is suitably colorful and crisp, also featuring a lossless 2.0 stereo track that delivers the film’s dense soundtrack in a nicely balanced fashion. There are no extras to speak of.