Lukas Haas and Katherine Helmond

Lady-Killer: Exploring Coming-of-Age Through Horror in ‘Lady in White’

Lady in White is a patiently-crafted example of how setting and atmosphere can supersede character and action in a story.

A hodgepodge of styles and genres, Lady in White marked an unusual entry in film when it premiered back in 1988. Though it came and went to little fanfare at the tail-end of a decade that championed testosterone-driven action (Lethal Weapon) and maudlin tearjerkers (Steel Magnolias), Frank LaLoggia’s second directorial effort is a patiently-crafted example of how setting and atmosphere can supersede character and action in a story.

Lady in White is the story of Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Hass), a prepubescent boy growing up in the early ‘60s in small-town America. Raised by his single father and grandparents, Frankie spends his days putting up with the buffoonery of his older brother and cruel classmates. Good-natured and eager-to-please, he soon finds himself the target of an utterly thoughtless practical joke when he is locked in the cloakroom of his class after school by a few of the bullies. Trapped overnight, Frankie awakens from his slumber to see the strange apparition of a young girl being brutally strangled by an unseen killer.

Frankie can piece together that some clue to the murder (which occurred years ago) has been left behind in the cloakroom. But he’s not entirely sure what to look for. Things get further complicated when, bit by bit, he learns of the origins of the young, murdered girl. She is related to the legend of the Lady in White, a ghost who roams the seaside, mourning the loss of her dead daughter.

In fact, there is far more to this story than the aforementioned. So much so that, at times, the story becomes laden with too many plot twists. Lady in White nears the danger of becoming a shaggy dog tale, threatening to veer off on sprawling tangents that introduce yet more characters with weighty backstories to the narrative. Yet, almost always, the story pulls back into focus to keep the action moving (albeit sometimes slowly) so that the important details always unfold in due time to allow the plot to advance.

Lady in White’s greatest feat, admittedly, is the amount of detail related to its setting, which in turn radiates an incredibly rich atmosphere that paints the idyllic life of ’60s Middle America with such clarity. The images are sweepingly beautiful and achieve a certain kind of old-world nostalgia; they’re particularly affecting when they are expressly utilized to draw the narrative out through Frankie’s emotional exploits. These moments, though sometimes a little forced, are charming and soft-hearted.

Things get a little bunched up, however, when LaLoggia introduces several subplots (a couple too many) into the main narrative. Stories about racial divide are intertwined with themes of sexual abuse, which further complicate the supernatural angle in this coming-of-age drama. It takes careful and patient viewing to follow each plot thread (most of which are tied into one another) to fully understand just how the narrative is unfolding. At times, it feels like too much work.

It also isn’t too clear whom this film is aimed at. Much of the narrative and its stylistic approach would suggest that it’s some kind of mild horror aimed at young audiences of the preteen set (Lady in White is given a PG-13 rating). There is, however, some uncomfortably adult content which seems to clash with the more sanguine elements, including a fairly graphic (at least for a PG-13 film) assassination, intense murder scenes of small children, and a scene of attempted sexual molestation, which comes across as more than slightly suggestive. These scenes may have worked well in another film in which its narrative angle and approach was mainly constructed for an adult audience. Here, those scenes are somewhat outdistanced and isolated from the more humble and innocuous sequences of the story.

LaLoggia does, then, have the benefit of some nicely drawn characters and solid actors to portray them. Haas, an actor who, as a child, was known for his quietly thoughtful and precocious performances, manages to turn on the charm without being sickeningly sweet. He carries the film as its lead and his understated performance never upsets the already sometimes uneven narrative structure with anything approaching overwrought. Alex Rocco (the every-father of the ‘80s) nicely renders his single father with a likeability that leaves him a welcome background figure. The characters, overall, are far more compelling than the mystery in which they become united to solve; as previously mentioned, they are often superseded by the atmosphere of the tale, but their presence is certainly felt.

Shout! Factory has done an amazing job getting this release together. Lady in White may have caused nothing but a mere whisper upon its release nearly three decades ago. But its small cult following will surely be thrilled by the abundance of this Blu-Ray’s supplements. Fans are handsomely rewarded with no less than three different cuts of this film: an original theatrical version, a director’s cut and an extended director’s cut. If that isn’t enough to get the hearts of every ‘80s film aficionado pumping faster, than Shout! Factory has also included an introduction by the filmmaker, audio commentary (again with LaLoggia), behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the film, deleted scenes, an extensive stills gallery, and the requisite trailer.

The transfer, unfortunately, shows its age. There are some instances of ghosting and fading throughout. It isn’t, however, too distracting, since much of the damage has been cleaned up. The only other thing here, apart from old film stock, to date the film’s age is the underwhelming special effects; even for their time they seem dated. Colours are warm but a little soft. The audio (both dialogue and soundtrack) is clear and comes through with no problematic distortions.

Lady in White seems to be LaLoggia’s most personal, and therefore favourite, effort. He isn’t incredibly prolific; to date there are only three films to his credit. But it is the effort of which he drew much from his own life growing up as a child, including the film’s haunting central mystery, the Lady in White, which LaLoggia based on the real-life White Lady Castle legend of Rochester, New York. According to the generations-old ghost story, a young girl went out one night for a stroll and was never heard from again. Her grief-stricken mother, convinced that her daughter had run off with a dangerous man, searched the premises for her daughter night after night. And many years on from her death, she continues to do so.

RATING 7 / 10