There’s a certain type of role that Steve Guttenberg was born to play. Guttenberg is one of the few actors who can claim to be both a mainstream leading actor and a “that guy,” possessing one of the blandest faces and personas ever to grace the screen. He’s the kind of actor you deploy in inoffensive family fare, bland comedies, or white-bread movies of the week: he holds the screen, delivers his lines, and generally does a pretty competent job of things. But he’s also uniquely talented at delivering utterly bizarre material as blandly as if he was in any of the above. Enter 1988’s High Spirits.
Set in writer/director Neil Jordan(!)’s native Ireland, High Spirits is a madcap farce starring a probably inebriated Peter O’Toole as Peter Plunkett, the suicidal owner of an immaculately production-designed but economically failing castle bed & breakfast. Upon rebranding the place as “the most haunted castle in Europe,” he receives a minor influx of American guests, who are initially disappointed in the fake scares he’s cooked up. Of course, unbeknownst to Plunkett or his guests, real ghosts lurk within the castle walls, and hijinks ensue.
Among those hijinks (and there are many) is a truly strange love triangle between Daryl Hannah (a ghost), Liam Neeson (a ghost), and Steve Guttenberg (a Guttenberg).
Falling in love with a ghost is complicated. Or rather, it would be complicated for a character played by any actor other than Steve Guttenberg. My man has a way of boiling every role down into an easily-digestible slurry of motivation, mugging, and Guttenberg. In High Spirits, his character Jack is obsessed with sex. We know he’s obsessed with sex, because he constantly complains to his disinterested wife Sharon (Beverly D’Angelo) that she never wants to bang him. I don’t think there’s anything else on Jack’s mind. We certainly don’t hear about it.
Luckily, Jack gets drunk enough early on to run into the wrong bedroom, where he meets Mary (Hannah) - a centuries-old ghost trapped in a neverending cycle of re-enacting her wedding-night murder at the hands of her husband Martin (Neeson). One-track Jack doesn’t pay much attention to the murder, though; he’s more interested in what Mary’s hiding behind her suspiciously sheer wedding dress. Almost by accident, he interrupts the murder cycle, freeing Mary to pursue ghost love with whomever she chooses.
Horn-dog Jack leaps at this opportunity, naturally, at which point we learn The Rules Of Ghost Sex. The only contact ghosts are allowed to have with the living is “scalping,” which involves no ticket resales or skull exposure, but does involve the ghost phasing through the person in question, causing sparkly effects and a trademark Guttenberg grin. Actual sex is forbidden. It’s not really explained how they’d do it, given that their place on the solid-ethereal continuum seems to change from scene to scene, but it doesn’t matter. Fuck a ghost, and that ghost ages all the years they would have since their death, doomed to whatever decrepitude that might be. That punishment can only be reversed by “a virtuous heart,” which is where things get truly questionable.
Turns out Jack's heart qualifies! This horny, horny man, who declares his love for Mary after knowing her a day or less, is "virtuous" enough to rescue her from 200-year-old age makeup after they inevitably bang. Whoever’s adjudicating this shit gave up caring long ago. All it takes is a quick “I love you” and she Denethors right back to her wedding-night self. Through another strange series of accidents (there are a ton of those in High Spirits), she comes back to life, presumably to bone Steve Guttenberg until the end of time.
Liam Neeson’s Martin isn’t happy with any of this, but that’s okay. He stumbles upon Beverly D’Angelo’s Sharon having a shower, and after perving on and groping her attempts to seduce her, going so far as to maniacally drive a floating ghost car after her at one point. Sharon goes through a terrifying ordeal, but for some reason, it provokes her to discover her long-lost sex drive and happily turn into a ghost, presumably to bone Liam Neeson until the end of time.
Coming from a director like Neil Jordan, it’s not surprising to learn that High Spirits draws from Irish folklore for its treatment of ghosts. There’s a lot of talk of mythological Irish banshees, and you get a sense there’s more history and lore behind the scenes than appears on screen. Jordan has said that the film was more or less taken away from him in the edit; it’d be interesting to see what his version looked like.
But in the released version, whatever gravitas the tragic ghost characters might have had is lost the moment they come into contact with the drama wrecking ball that is Steve Guttenberg. Guttenberg embodies average American comedy so fully that he feels out of place in High Spirits’ energetic, elaborately designed mayhem. His entire storyline feels like a studio note, as if the film’s backers panicked at the idea of a quirky farce about Peter O’Toole dealing with a castle full of Irish ghosts. That may well have been the case.
High Spirits received terrible reviews, but it wasn’t a career ruiner. Neil Jordan, of course, forged a super respectable career with films like Interview With The Vampire and The Crying Game. Daryl Hannah went on to work for Quentin Tarantino and the Wachowskis. Liam Neeson made a career as a serious actor, then another as a Key & Peele joke. Only Guttenberg has remained trapped where he began, in middle-of-the-road TV movie hell. Dude’s 57. Maybe it’s time somebody took a chance on him.