High Spirits is an odd, uneven misfire that, like a handful of movies (most recently, Morning Glory), suffers from a serious identity crisis. At times, it’s a wacky special effects comedy, but it’s not very funny and never seems like it much wants to be, and the special effects are fairly awful for the time. Sometimes, it’s a haunted-house mystery, only it’s not all that mysterious. At other times, it wants to be a raucous sex comedy, but its PG-13 rating prevents it from getting any sexier than silhouettes and innuendo. Some films can handle the balancing act of genre-bending craziness, but this isn’t one of them.

The film opens with Peter Plunkett (Peter O’Toole) trying to figure out how to pay the mortgage on Plunkett Castle, a coastal Irish relic with leaky ceilings, moldy walls, and all the charm of a cave. He tried unsuccessfully to turn it into a hotel, and now the mortgage holder — a shady American investor — wants to move the entire castle to Malibu. Left with no choice but to hang himself (the only running gag in the film that provides consistent laughs), he’s stopped at the last minute by the realization that marketing the hotel as a haunted castle might lure in dumb tourists.

The first half hour of the film — easily the best part — focuses on Peter’s efforts to convince a demographically diverse (but still lily-white) group of Americans that the hotel is really haunted. Using his disinterested, largely inept staff as ghosts suspended with wires or projected with mirrors, he creates a haunted-house experience surpassed in badness only by the dozens of overpriced haunted houses dotting Wisconsin Dells. The proceedings should get more complicated when it’s revealed that the castle really is haunted, and they do, but only because the film can’t figure out what to do with itself once the revelation occurs.

It tries for romance. When a drunken Jack Crawford (Steve Guttenberg) stumbles into the wrong room and encounters a ghost couple locked in a pattern of endlessly reenacting the murder of Mary Plunkett (Daryl Hannah), he thinks it’s more silly gags — until he steps in front of Martin Brogan’s (Liam Neeson) knife and breaks the pattern. Quickly, Jack falls in love with Mary, whose sweetness and generosity seems like the perfect antidote to Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo), his shrill ice princess of a wife. Freed as well, Brogan sets his own sights on Sharon, but his involves less romance and more fondling.

There’s more sex comedy, in the form of Brother Tony (Peter Gallagher), studying for the priesthood, and Miranda (Jennifer Tilly), who fills his chaste brain with impure thoughts. The ghosts’ efforts to rid the castle of tourists has the side effect of thrusting (so to speak) these two into sexy situations. Both actors are game and amusing, but the subplot feels more like padding than a worthwhile contribution to the story.

Then there’s the half-hearted mystery, in which disbelieving parapsychologist Malcolm (Martin Ferrero) uses sophisticated equipment to disprove the presence of ghosts, only to repeatedly prove himself wrong and start to wonder who these ghosts are and how they ended up in this castle. Meanwhile, to add some more wacky sex comedy, Malcolm’s high-strung wife, Marge (Connie Booth), just wants him to relax and have sex with her.

Great casting aside, the film never really takes off, and part of the problem may lie in the structure. It opens at a manic clip, with a great deal of (frequently funny) physical comedy, witty banter, off-kilter sight gags, and Peter O’Toole being more hilarious than I ever thought possible. Once the guests arrive and the movie shifts focus and slows down, it also stops being interesting and coasts to a ho-hum ending that’s sort of happy, sort of existentially depressing, and ultimately unsatisfying.

Oft-repeated legend has it that producers literally locked writer/director Neil Jordan out of the editing room after they rejected his cut, which allegedly focused more on the mystery of the ghosts than the wacky comedy. Frankly, I’m not sure that would have helped salvage the movie. Maybe his cut made the film less uneven, but I can’t see how it’d make the overall story work better. Either way, we’re stuck with the movie we have, and that movie just doesn’t succeed.

D. B. Bates is a freelance script reader and writer.

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