High Spirits Review

Ireland. Peter Plunkett (Peter O'Toole) owns a castle which has been converted into a hotel. Times are hard, and the hotel is facing closure. Peter makes a last-ditch attempt to save the hotel by claiming the hotel is haunted and having members of his staff pretend to be ghosts. However, along comes a coach party of Americans...and some real ghosts.

With hindsight, it's a good rule of thumb that Neil Jordan's films are better depending on which side of the Atlantic they are made. By the mid-80s, Jordan had established himself as a leading British (Irish) director. His three features - Angel, The Company of Wolves and Mona Lisa - displaying a visual flair unusual in someone who, don't forget, began as a short-story writer and novelist. Needless to say, after the last-named, an arthouse success in the USA which earned Bob Hoskins an Oscar nomination, Hollywood beckoned. High Spirits was a halfway house: made, as were Jordan's two previous pictures, by Palace, but with American co-production and a much larger budget. But with transatlantic collaboration, comes a mid-Atlantic compromise, and it's fair to say that High Spirits is a mess. It felt like a complete misfire in 1988, and watching it again twenty years later it still does. It retrospect this film, and Jordan's next, the entirely Hollywood-made (and just as misfiring) We're No Angels, suggest he should keep away from the broader type of comedy. He returned to basics with The Miracle, which seemed underwhelming at the time but may be worthy of reassessment. Jordan's next film put his career back on track: The Crying Game.

For a comedy, High Spirits simply isn't funny, making the common mistake in equating running around and shouting in loud voices with big laughs. As a love story – bickering American couple Jack (Steve Guttenberg) and Sharon (Beverly D'Angelo) separately fall for ghost couple Mary (Daryl Hannah) and Martin (Liam Neeson) – it doesn't work. Jack and Mary's romance feels superficial: you can sense his disappointment when she reveals herself as not the beautiful young thing he fell for. Peter O'Toole is left on the sidelines, and another romance subplot involving Jennifer Tilly and priest Peter Gallagher is an equal irritant. A sign of compromise is the villagers frequent use of “shagging” as an adjective – to prevent anything more realistic landing the film with a R rating. (It was a 15 in the UK as the 12 did not exist then: it's the latter rating now.)

To be fair, the film looks good. Alex Thomson's camerawork is easy on the eye, and Anton Furst's production design reminds us what a talent was lost when he committed suicide in 1991. The pre-CGI visual effects, supervised by Derek Meddings, are also good. But if all you can praise in an intended crowd-pleasing fantasy/comedy is the cinematography and the sets and the special effects, then something is surely amiss. For Jordan and fantasy-film completists only.


High Spirits is released by Optimum on a single-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only.

The DVD transfer is in the original ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. It's a good transfer, colourful with good shadow detail. A slight softness is intentional: that's what the film looked like in the cinema.

High Spirits was released in the cinema in Dolby Stereo, and that's the basis of the sound mix: 2.0 which plays as Dolby Surround if your amp is set to PCM or Dolby ProLogic. Mostly the surrounds are used for George Fenton's overblown music score, but there are some uses of directional sound. No subtitles, but as this is an English-language Optimum release you could guess that, if not approve of it.

There are no extras on this DVD.

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