Whenever Internet folks get to talking about the great ghost movies of the 1980s, one title that tends to pop up is Lady in White. More than one hardened horror critic has told the story of being mesmerized and terrified by the 1988 chiller. Now, Scream Factory is releasing a tricked out special edition, with three separate cuts of the film and numerous special features.
Now, I knew nothing about the film going in, so I was a tad bit surprised when the movie-proper started up with a long and broad comedy sequence (an old man’s pants get set on fire! A nun scares away a pack of dogs!) while zippy movie underlines how charming and adorable all this is.
‘Wait one gosh-darn minute,’ I thought. ‘Is this a kids’ movie? Have I been hoodwinked? Is this one of those things where people who saw this movie when they were eight remember it as being terrifying but actually its no harsher than an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? And what ever happened to that show, that was some good-‘
You get the idea. But just as I was losing patience with Lady in White, the movie takes a hard turn to the harsh.
But let’s back up. Lady in White opens with Frankie Scarlatti returning to his hometown of Willowpoint Falls. A respected and successful horror author, Frankie flashes back to the Halloween night that changed his life. You see, when Frankie was ten (and played by Lukas Haas), his friends locked him in the cloakroom at school, and as he passes the miserable hours of the cold night, the ghost of a little girl appears before him.
And as Frankie watches, the girl’s ghost reenacts the horrible scene of her murder, struck down viciously by a serial killer. And shortly after that, the killer comes back to the cloakroom, setting off a chain of events that changes Frankie and his hometown forever.
Writer/director/composer/producer/probably-did-the-catering-too Frank LaLoggia does something really interesting with this sequence: he makes it as blunt and ugly as humanly possible, with a ferocity that is all the more striking given how frothy the movie had been to that point. Even when the film goes back to its goofier and lighter inclinations, there’s a coldness to the brightness that wasn’t there before. Suddenly Frankie and the audience are aware that shadows have teeth, and they might close down at any moment.
In that way, Lady in White recalls less the other creature features of that era than a Ray Bradbury collection. Bradbury’s fiction would flit between the charmingly naive to the shockingly bleak, moving from one to the other from story to story, if not paragraph to paragraph. No American writer ever equaled Bradbury’s ability to find the lyricism of autumn days, but at is absolute best, Lady in White gets awfully close.
It’s helped along by the terrific cinematography, courtesy of Russell Carpenter. Carpenter ended up partnering with James Cameron and is still working today, lensing everything from Ant-Man to that new XXX movie. Collaborating with LaLoggia, Cameron’s camera does beautiful work capturing the Gothic feel of autumn, with the Lady in White stalking through fog-wrapped trees while the wind shakes the branches.
LaLogia’s script is episodic and feels free to meander, equally as concerned with the strange rhythms of a household or a small town as he is in murder mysteries and ghouls. While Frankie is our central figure, the film is equally concerned with how his near-miss at tragedy impacts his father, Angelo. Alex Rocco, most famous for being shot in the goddamn eye in The Godfather, turns in a tremendously sympathetic performance as the father, the kind of soft-spoken figure of strength that don’t regularly appear in movies.
With most movies about kids encountering the supernatural or going on an adventure, the parents are excluded because “They’ll never believe us!” or “He’ll never understand!” But with Lady in White, it feels more like Frankie doesn’t want to burden his father with any more worry or grief. It gives the film a central sweetness that really works as the film pushes deeper and deeper into the murder mystery as it progresses.
Central to that mystery is Katherine Helmond as the titular Lady in White. Who she is and how she fits into the mystery surrounding the dead girl and the killer are the key questions hanging over the film, and LaLoggia is a smart enough writer to zig where hardened genre fans know to expect a zag. Helmond is I guess most well-known for being on stuff like Who’s the Boss or Everybody Loves Raymond for years, but film fans love her for her bitingly funny turns in Terry Gilliam films like Time Bandits and Brazil. She’s phenomenal here, a truly terrifying ghoul haunting the edges of the film. It’s no wonder that so many kids carried the memories of her Lady with them for years and years after.
Not everything the movie tries works. A To Kill a Mockingbird-ian subplot about a black man being railroaded for the killings is relayed with far too heavy a hand and sort of fades out with satisfactory resolution. And Blu-ray does no favors to the special effects of the film’s third act, when various people grapple at the edge of a cliff. It takes something out of the life-and-death struggle of the climax when all the actors have blue outlines around them to denote the bluescreen they’re acting against. It’s too bad, because I love the emotion of the last chunk of the movie, but it seems like LaLoggia’s ambitions may have bested his budget.
The Scream Factory Blu-ray comes with the theatrical cut, a Director’s Cut, and an Extended Director’s Cut. I have not seen the Extended cut yet, but the Director’s Cut adds little touches of flavor back into the film. There’s a little bit more of the side characters, a few more opportunities for Rocco to shine, that kind of thing.
Lady in White did not do especially well when it opened, but it’s clear why the film has continued to linger in the minds of those who saw it. It’s a strange little movie, sincere and off-beat, and it’s too bad LaLoggia didn’t get many more shots. While there’s a roughness to Lady in White, it succeeds wildly in the places where it counts, and I suspect it will continue to haunt viewers young and old for years to come.
Get it at Amazon:
Lady In White – [Blu-ray]