Lady in White

Dir: Frank LaLoggia, 1988. Starring: Lukas Haas, Len Cariou. Horror.
Lady in White

A curious mix of autumn colored nostalgia for a small town early 1960s childhood and a supernatural fantasy with an icky child murderer sub plot to round it out, Lady in White is something of an anomaly. Released at a time when horror films were gorier than ever (think Freddy, Jason, et al.) this quietly creepy little movie made a virtue of suggestiveness rather than overkill and at least the hint of psychological complexity that works to the film’s favor even if the execution is a little clumsy. Still, the film has a couple of genuinely haunting moments that have some of the visual poetry of the classic Val Lewton horror films that he made for RKO (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie).

Little Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is a sensitive kid and a budding writer who loves to scare people with his monster stories. After terrifying his classmates with a special story he wrote just for Halloween he is tricked by some of his bratty classmates into being locked in the school coatroom after everyone else has gone home. He falls asleep only to wake up hours later, trying not to panic in his little Dracula costume, with the glow of moonlight shining in the window. It’s this scene that stays with you—just a simple, almost completely still shot that speaks artfully of the very real childhood fear of being abandoned, of being lost in the darkness that you are too young to comprehend.

Frankie sees something unbelievable—the ghost of a little girl wanders into the cloak room as he hovers in the shadows. She is strangled by an invisible man as if on an endless loop of torment doomed to reenact her murder night after night. Minutes later a man in black enters the room and fishes around for something on the floor. We guess that he has something to do with the little girl’s murder and he appears to be tying up his loose ends. He hears Frankie and lunges at him growling to know what Frankie knows about this. It’s here that a really strange fantasy sequence begins. Frankie sees his mother who has recently died, he is enraptured by the warm glow of maternal comfort only to see her slammed into her coffin a moment later. Frankie then flies towards the sun getting closer and closer until he is almost swallowed by it. He wakes up to discover that he is not dead and that his father has come to his rescue.

A black school janitor is in the unfortunate position of having been passed out drunk in the boiler room of the school while Frankie had been attacked and is promptly used as a scapegoat by a racist police force and a town hungry for justice. We are clued into the fact that the town has had numerous child murders throughout its history and that in 1952 a little girl was murdered in the very school coatroom that Frankie was locked in. Frankie, spooked by what he had seen in the coatroom becomes a junior detective obsessed with solving the little girl’s murder.

There is another ghost who haunts the town, the aforementioned Lady in White, who may have something to do with the little girl who was murdered and there is also a sadistic killer closer to Frankie’s happy little Italian American family than he at first realizes. The film is a coming-of-age tale that happens to feature ghosts and foggy cliffs, and a creepy old lady in a candle lit shack who comes to Frankie’s rescue. The film is a kind of modernized fairy tale about growing up.

It doesn’t always work. The score (also composed by the director) is sappy and heavy handed and the narrator’s voice is way too self serious. At times the film is all over the place with a mix of whimsy, terror, and the stark realism of kinder murder and the issue of racism somewhat awkwardly sharing the same film. But this quirky mix is what gives the film its genuine originality. It’s a strikingly personal film that I would guess is the director’s attempt to explain the harshness and sadness of the world through a child’s eyes. It’s a mystery why LaLoggia, the director of Lady in White, hasn’t really been heard of since when he started with such a promising first movie.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Dec 16, 2008 4:43pm
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