Sunday, May 5, 2019

LADY IN WHITE: A Nightmare & Schlockscapes Spotlight

Welcome to Nightmares and Schlockscapes, where movies that go bump in the night are dragged from beneath your bed and into the spotlight. The Gothic classics of yesteryear, the bodacious B-grades, and those celluloid chillers best watched through your fingers.


A great equalizer among cultures, small towns, and tight-knit communities throughout the world are the multitudes of fables and folklore that spring up within them. Some vastly different from one another, but many share surprisingly common traits. One such locality specific legend centers around a ghostly apparition known by the moniker "The Lady In White," and it feels like there's nary a quietly quaint town that doesn't have their own. But growing up in Rochester, New York, Writer-Director Frank LaLoggia knew only of one: The White Lady who roamed Durand-Eastman Park, never at rest, searching for her murdered daughter. A tragically lovelorn concept that LaLoggia recontextualizes, and builds upon, for his 1988 ghost tale, LADY IN WHITE. A stark, contemplative gem that was drowned out among it's more chaotic and rock n' roll horror brethren usually found in cinemas.

I discovered LADY IN WHITE for the first time a few years ago, and it lingered with me long past the roll of the credits. It's a movie that has a habit of doing that every time you watch it, really. I've jokingly called it "Faux-Bradbury," but I say it with utmost love and as a compliment. It really feels like this lost Bradbury tale, dashed in with some Stephen King for that added oomph. But much more than that, what brings it to life is this autobiographical sense, as LaLoggia pulls from his Italian-American upbringing - he even portrays the adult version of the main character in an opening flash-forward. In truth, I don't find the season of All Hallow's Eve to be complete without a viewing of it, much in the same way Something Wicked This Way Comes captures the magic of all that goes bump in the night we horror fans are attuned to.

Saying all that, LADY IN WHITE is different than merely feeling like something out of the Bradbury or King wheelhouse. LADY operates almost like a fairy tale, as a nostalgic coming-of-age story (the most perfect comparison I could make is LADY is to Halloween what A CHRISTMAS STORY is to Christmas), and as a story of the harsh realities that surround children and how those realities come to clash with their own innocent understanding. It's a film about loss, grief, and adults being unable to bear the weight of abhorrent violence, leaving a child to lead the sole charge in facing it.

That child is an aspiring young horror author named Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas, fresh off WITNESS), who is, one brisk Halloween night, locked in his school's coat closet by local bullies. As he perches himself by a high window, dressed in his Dracula costume and mask, drifting in an out of troubled sleep, a ghostly replay of past events unfolds in the room with him. A young girl, no more than his age, sings the appropriately titled tune of "Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?" And speaks to an unknown, and unseen, individual. At first, the theater of time Frankie is being privy to seems playful - if not terrifying due to the presence of, you know, a ghost - it quickly turns into something else entirely. He watches this young girl strangled before him, viewing her every struggle and pummel of her tiny fists to escape her attacker. This Halloween night would set Frankie on a course that would change his life - and nearly end it.

There's a scene that's directly after this sequence that is the true heart of the tale. And while the film always holds onto a sort of fable, perhaps dream-like quality, it also has a way of being very, very dark at times, and so that heart can carry you through some pretty bitter circumstances. Frankie finds himself entering a type of ethereal realm between life and death, a state brought on after nearly being killed by the unseen killer, himself. There, he meets the ghost of the murdered girl: Melissa. In a scene that I fully believe inspired the heart wrenching third act climax of PARANORMAN years later (it's scarily similar, and I love PARANORMAN even more for this fact), Frankie learns Melissa is searching for her mother and yearns to be reunited, and asks Frankie to help her. 

And so, our young hero is burdened with a task and a promise, and this promise is enough to give the film a sturdy emotional through-line by itself, but what the film DOESN'T call attention to is what's most striking. Rescuing what could be argued is a stand-in for the very idea of innocence and purity with this task, and attempting to solve a series of child murders that this small town has chosen to ignore in the process, is not just significant as an act of righteousness unto itself. It's significant because Frankie is haunted not just by the lost soul of Melissa, but by his own grief and longing. Frankie lost his own mother, and in reuniting Melissa with hers, he aims to give her a gift that he himself cannot ever receive.

And in that, we find one of LADY IN WHITE's greatest strengths: sincerity. This film is sincere to a fault at times, occasionally getting into hokey territory, but it's easy to forgive such moments because they're personal and authentically sincere, not in place as emotional manipulation. LADY IN WHITE isn't a simple spooky ghost flick that has a touching coming-of-age story sprinkled within. It carries meaning. And beyond that, it's not afraid to get dirty and explore darkness even past that of child murder.

A subplot throughout the film is the town pinning the murders on the school's black janitor, Willy. This subplot is unfortunately still just as relevant today as it was in '88, and in '62, where the film takes place. The police even openly admit Willy is but a scapegoat, hoping to bury this horribleness once and for all. The town can't face its own outrage and sorrow for the deaths of these children, dating back ten long years.

And Frankie, young impressionable Frankie, sees this. And while never directly called out upon (the film can be impeccably subtle and never talks down to you OR it's child characters), it clearly imprints a mark in Frankie about the realities of his world. And only endeavors him to his cause more.

LaLoggia isn't afraid to take that subplot to it's darkest conclusion and just let it hang there. He does that with many things. With betrayals, with the very notion of childhood being broken, never to be mended, and so much more. But through that, never lets the film lose its sense of friggin' wonder.

You can tell when an artist is truly putting something onto the screen that's from every synapse of their brain, every fiber of their upbringing, utilizing all the churned up emotion they're capable of. Even when it doesn't work, it's something special. For instance, Ridley Scott's LEGEND is a mess, but one you can't take your eyes off. LADY IN WHITE has that quality. LaLogga funded the entire production independently, practically filming it day-to-day in fear of the money falling out from under him. After a disastrous time with his first film, he swore not to go the studio or investor route again. No one would tell him what was what, or go in afterward and alter his work. Using penny stocks and the promise of delivering something of quality, he slowly raised enough money to keep film in the cameras. Actors came on board because the material spoke to them, not because studio executives reached out to their agents. It attracted a young up-and-coming cinematographer named Russel Carpenter, years before he'd team up with James Cameron... and may I say, while LADY doesn't contain shots of Leonardo Dicaprio being old-timey handsome on a sinking ship, it's his best work, in my opinion.

But every day on set could have been the last for LADY IN WHITE. And actually, I find some of the budgetary limitations make for more a unique work. The effects can be rudimentary, but only end up adding to this strange, otherworldly quality which aesthetically contradicts, and smacks against, the true real-world horror that LADY often presents. A happy accident, if there ever were one. Some sets look as if they should be from a Grimm Fairy Tale stage play, and some of the ghost effects look all wrong for the environment. But I like that. I like the contrasts. It reminds me of what I love about horror: It gives a supernatural escape when I need a break from how utterly wrong the world can be. I'll take ghosts and goblins over the real monsters, please.

So, through pure luck and a series of miracles, production held together. The film found itself finished. LADY IN WHITE is written, directed, and composed by LaLoggia himself. An artist with a story to tell, and it shows. Hell, even the warts of the flick come from a place that's near and dear. That's rare. Unfortunately, it's as rare as a Frank LaLoggia screen credit. He wouldn't go on to make more after LADY, and it's a damn shame in this meek terror junkie's opinion. Then again, after crafting such an interesting and introspective film, one can metaphorically mic drop. It did what LaLoggia set out to do: it had an effect on you (yes, YOU). It would go on, I believe, to secretly and not so secretly inspire other works. I still have some theories about OVER THE GARDEN WALL's Wert totally being Lukas Haas, buuut that's a crazy person theory for another day. His filmography may be brief, but he can be proud. 

I like to imagine there's a great Horror Film Pantheon, and it's shaped suspiciously like a video store, and within that grand video store in the sky, there's a Ghost Films section... and LADY IN WHITE has a display at the end of the aisle.

All because, in 1988, for one spine-tingly night out at the cinema, you were treated to a vision from an artist who is truly passionate and sincere about what they're putting out into the world. A personal film to make, and for those who've seen it, I think it becomes something personal, as well. Now, I'm not saying it's for everybody, but do yourself a favor and take at least one trip to the small town of Willowpoint Falls, on Halloween 1962, and ask yourself...

Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?

LADY IN WHITE is available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory, and comes with THREE cuts of the film. Theatrical, Director's Cut, and an exclusive to Shout Factory Extended Director's Cut. Three chances to find a version that could become your go-to Halloween season favorite. Not a bad deal, aye?

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