Gag a Maggot
Leah Churner on High Spirits

Neil Jordan deserves the silent treatment for High Spirits; that any ink should be spilled over this fetid log is a tragedy. Bracing himself for a much-deserved slap in the face, knave Jordan offered excuses and denied culpability, but really he should’ve sent flowers. If you love this director, or are simply a masochist, you may overlook the suspicious details of his apologetic folk story and allow him to move from the doghouse to the couch. He contends he was locked out of the editing room (literally) after the studio saw his esoteric original version, in which the mood was more serious, the humor darker, and the character-development extant. This heady art film, High Spirits: The Director's Cut allegedly saw limited video release in Japan (convenient!) before Jordan, man of mystery, absconded with the original print and locked it away in a vault. Yes, a vault, darling.

Even if “vault” is, as I suspect, an Irish colloquialism for “dumpster,” Jordan should have recognized High Spirits as a train wreck long before he was booted from the editing process. After all he wrote it, shitty premise and all. The tagline is a stroke of genius in its terse conveyance of the magnitude of dreadful mawkishness and tireless illogic that pervades every frame: “She’s a ghost. He’s an American. Vacation romances are always a hassle.”

It seems Jordan was then existing on a separate plane, where it is perfectly reasonable to blindly take all the contents in his cupboards and fridge, throw them into Cuisinart, and declare dinner served. The concoction may not be ambitious, but it’s busy. Perhaps it has some of your favorite ingredients in it, but they are no longer distinguishable from the overall brownish, smelly goop. It’s a love story, a slapstick sex comedy, a family film, a horror movie, and a conscientious romp about Anglo-American relations. It’s also a rumination on the conditions of the afterlife, and a detailed manual specifying innumerable convoluted guidelines about how to have a physical relationships with the deceased.

At first, High Spirits also tries to assert itself as a romantic-comedy remake of House on Haunted Hill (1959). Jordan borrows the bare bones of its structure: a group of motley strangers arrive at a creepy mansion, in hopes of surviving a stay in a haunted spot. The master of the house, a charismatically decadent dandy, insists the place is teeming with ghosties, while the visitors maintain that they don’t believe in spooks.

In both films, the host is by far the most compelling of the characters. Peter O’Toole is Peter Plunkett, flamboyantly fatalistic lush whose character only flourishes in the first five minutes. This glimmer of promise in High Spirits is promptly drowned in a silly sea of bagpipes and predictability. O’Toole isn’t great as a postmodern analog for Vincent Price’s Frederick Loren, (he’s no Dr. Frank-N-Furter), but he is outstanding in relation to the rest of the cast.

Like Haunted Hill, High Spirits opens with menacing exterior shots of the house and introduces the gaggle of guests as they are chauffeured there. This time, the setting is an Irish castle rather than a Frank Lloyd Wright California mansion, and instead of individual hearses, the guests come in a ramshackle bus, which is supposed to propel the comedic narrative along with its bumpy ride. But it sinks in every sense, and the guests arrive at Castle Plunkett sopping wet.

The characters in Haunted Hill comprise a fascinating array of Fifties-era fringe types: a young test pilot who remains a bachelor, a cowardly alcoholic, a shady psychiatrist, a city-dwelling sophisticate with a gambling problem, and a working girl who supports her entire family. These people are all deviating from the norm of Cold War conservative values in some way; they are either morally corrupt, they have failed to arrange themselves into proper nuclear units. As a result, the economic prosperity of the Fifties has eluded them, and they are desperate enough to do bizarre and exotic things to pay off their exorbitant debts. When Loren promises to award them $10,000 if they survive a night in his home all readily surrender their dignity and sell themselves to this odd John. Thus Haunted Hill is a sort of cautionary parable about errant living.

Here again, Jordan exposes his laziness. The visitors in his movie are not a cross-section of any facet of American culture. They’re simply stock types: nervous priest-in-training (Peter Gallager), a wild, available young babe (Jennifer Tilly), an uppity Duke University parapsychologist (Martin Ferrero), a movie mogul’s rich-bitch daughter (Beverly D’Angelo) and her worthless husband (Steve Guttenberg). These people are not united by dark commonalities, they’re just taking a random vacation to rural Ireland.

In High Spirits, Plunkett has all the financial woes, while his guests are well-off. After a Malibu millionaire threatens to foreclose on his monstrous home, Plunkett hatches a wacky scheme to transform the castle into a theme park of counterfeit ghosts to lure wealthy American tourists. Things get loused-up from the get-go when the Americans arrive and a kooky adventure ensues. (A knight on roller skates?? Now I’ve seen everything!) The hotel staff makes a royal mess as their haunting hi-jinks go haywire, while the self-absorbed, thankless Americans are totally oblivious.

Little do they know, the castle really is haunted by Plunkett’s ancestors, and suddenly High Spirits morphs from a family film to a sex comedy interspersed with earnest romance. Who knew cold stiffs could be so hot and bothered—not to mention emotionally available? The adamantly whimsical score, seemingly lifted from E.T. or Indiana Jones, is startlingly inapt, and it underscores the confusion and banality of this indolent movie.

My wrath toward Jordan is indistinguishable from my repulsion for Steve Guttenberg, the pouting, emasculated Jack, whose defining characteristics are his oversized sweater-vests and his defenselessness against his frigid, Valium-popping wife. (Her defining attribute is that she mentions the drug by its brand-name every few seconds, in case you didn’t get it the last time, almost as if she’s doing pharmaceutical product placement.) Poor Jack’s wife finds him revolting, so he finds himself a dead gal. The veteran of the Three Men and a Baby franchise never imbues Jack with anything resembling complexity, even as his gee-shucks enthusiasm for the simple things in life—guessing games, tall tales, and true love—is juxtaposed with his necrophilia.

A gargling, cooing man-baby, Guttenberg appears to have taken acting lessons from the Muppets. Instead of walking and talking, he croaks and moseys. Jack is less funny and more self-pitying than Fozzy Bear, and deserves to be pummeled with poisoned tomatoes. He’s not the first Muppet impersonator in a movie about wacky specters run amok—Rick Moranis did a fine job in Ghostbusters—but he’s the first to sexually violate the dead. Speaking of Ghostbusters, Guttenberg is a near dead ringer for Mr. Stay Puft, only scarier and more bloated.

In sum, while I understand that retrospectives exist to celebrate and contexutalize a director’s life work rather than dismiss it, the truth is that High Spirits may be the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I suppose the spooks on screen were high, but this dreadful movie rendered my own spirit utterly desiccated.

This article originally appeared in Reverse Shot's Winter 2005 Neil Jordan symposium.