St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

High Spirits (1988)

High Spirits title card

It’s been a quiet month for movie nights, but with a good reason — I’ve been in the process of moving. The good news is that I’ve signed a lease on a new place and ensconced myself like a tick in a dog’s ear, but the movers haven’t arrived yet so I’m stuck sitting on a hardwood floor with nothing to do. Sounds like the perfect time to blog about dodgy movies.

This week we have High Spirits (1988), another bizarre relic of the 1980s when movies were allowed to be camp. Parker and I kicked this observation around as we watched it. Sometime in the 2000s it was decided that the goofiness of the ’80s had been an embarrassment and now everything had to be grimdark. I like a bit of grimdark myself, but without any lighthearted, camp movies for contrast everything winds up being a long, humourless slog. Maybe it was Lord of the Rings that did it — the long battle sequences, the shots weighed down by millennia of mythology, and the haunting atmosphere that wants you to know it takes itself very, very seriously. Yes, there are jokes, but not at the movie’s expense. They’re not the winking in-jokes with the audience that you get in movies that are here to have fun (c.f. The Abominable Dr. Phibes). Follow Lord of the Rings with the Dark Knight films, which refuse to acknowledge the essential campness of something as obviously silly as a man dressed like a bat; and the Marvel films like X-Men, Captain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy that want you to know that adults wearing their underpants on the outside are Serious Business and where all the jokes are pallid, limp, and twitching like a patient waking up on the operating table. Suddenly a movie takes all day to watch because it’s SO important and requires AT LEAST three hours to impart to you the brilliance of the director’s vision. Girls don’t wanna have fun any more, they want to put bad guys in a headlock, and although that admittedly kicks arse I miss having fun. Good thing it’s always the ’80s at my place.

A man's mother scolds him as he tries to hang himself.
“Ohhhh there you are, taking the easy way out! You naughty boy!”

Peter Plunkett, played by Peter O’Toole, is the broke last scion of an aristocratic family now living in its crumbling ancestral home in Ireland. If he can’t cough up some money in short order, an American businessman will take the castle apart brick by brick, mail it to Malibu, and turn it into a theme park called Irish World.

A woman screaming through the sun roof of a van.
“Driver, there’s a lady on the luggage rack!”
“I’m not a lady I’m a banshee!”

In a fit of misguided, Jameson-induced enthusiasm, Plunkett decides to turn the castle into a haunted bed and breakfast and thus save his home. His attempt at rigging up some banshees and ethereal ghasts goes worse than the ill-starred Spiderman musical which left Spidey dangling on the end of a stage wire for minutes on end while the audience laughed. The American tourists who’ve come for a good fright are not impressed by the wailing maidens and headless knights.

A ghost emerges from a wall.

The twist comes when one American discovers the castle really is haunted af. He wanders into a disused bedroom to discover that every night a young woman materialises just to be murdered by her fiancé over and over again. He interrupts the murder and falls in love with the ghost of the young woman. To be honest this is where the plot starts to lose me. I can go for a good goofy supernatural movie, but I have zero interest in this half-arsed Hollywood love story. This movie was a lot better when it was trying (and succeeding) to be funny.

Plunkett's mother and the ghost of her husband.
“Well, our son is an idiot.”
“We’ve known that for years.”

Plunkett’s mother, who turns out not to be entirely senile, has been married to the ghost of her dead husband for the last ten years. The husband decides that if this is the only way to save the castle, he’ll help his incompetent son haunt the Americans properly.

A woman dressed in a lampshade and a man in a tapestry.

When the Americans try to leave, the ghosts stir up a freak squall that demolishes the tour bus and rips all their clothes off.

A bloody hand reaches out of a fish.

The American parapsychologist, not impressed so far with Plunkett’s amateur ghosts, gets a proper fright when a bloody hand springs out of a fish’s mouth and grabs him by the neck.

A sparkly ghost.

Well willya look at that, High Spirits did sparkly, pale men before Twilight did! In this scene an American woman has sex with the ghost of the man who kills his fiancĂ©e every night, because that’s her type apparently — violent, abusive, possessive, jealous, and undead. He’s also got that fish-lips thing that some people get, like the early Roman emperors. Oh shit, wait, that’s Liam Neeson! Er… sorry Liam, I take it back. You really grew into your looks, huh?

The murdered woman has aged two hundred years.
“You look great, you really do.”

The rest of this movie has some nice moments, like Plunkett reuniting with the ghost of his dead father, but largely concerns itself with getting the lovers together and happily ever after. For me this is where the film goes wrong and squanders a lot of its good will. The jokes are funny and the fun bits are a lot of fun, but the love story is just going through the motions. They waste way too much time on these uninteresting young people.

The Skinny

Plunkett's mother looking a bit wild.

“What did you have to give me this place for? You knew I was an incompetent.”

Like Strictly Ballroom this movie is a really good movie and a mediocre movie stitched together. I loved the storylines about Plunkett trying to save the castle and the Americans being taunted by intransigent ghouls, I loved the witty dialogue and the slapstick comedy, but I don’t give two hoots about the uninspired love story. It’s a shame because this is a genuinely funny, enjoyable sort of movie when it gets things right. And with great talent like Peter O’Toole and Liz Smith (Mrs. Cropley from The Vicar of Dibley), how could it not be? When it has so many great things going for it, it’s painful to watch the film turn away from them and focus on its weakest parts. Enjoy with friends and appreciate all the things this movie does well. Maybe just fast-forward through the dull bits.