Sony // 1988 // 118 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // January 17th, 2006
The year is 1962. The place is Willowpoint Falls. Nobody talks about what happened in the school cloakroom 10 years ago. Now, in the dead of night, Frankie Scarlatti is going to find out why.
As a young boy of about 11 or 12, I fell in love with Frank LaLoggia's nostalgic horror-mystery, Lady in White. Maybe that's because it's told from the perspective of a boy not too much younger than me at the time, or because that boy shared the same love of ghost stories, horror fiction, and monster movies that I had growing up. I think, though, that my response had something to do with the fact that LaLoggia had crafted that rare thing -- a good story, and better yet, a good ghost story -- and had done so with grace, class, and lot of heart. Even as a kid, that much was evident.
The movie begins in the present day, with grown-up horror author Frankie Scarlatti (an uncredited LaLoggia) recalling one fateful autumn from his youth, shortly after the passing of his mother. Young Frankie (played in flashback by a Lukas Haas of Witness and Mars Attacks!) is seen growing up in his Italian-American home in the early 1960s, son of the grieving Angelo Scarlatti (a never-better Alex Rocco, Mo Green be damned) and younger brother to mischievous teenager Geno (Jason Presson, Explorers). One afternoon following his school Halloween party, Frankie is locked in the classroom's coatroom by a couple of bullies. While in there, he sees the image of a young girl (Joelle Jacobi) being violently murdered; shortly thereafter, a figure dressed all in black bursts in, clearly searching for something. When Frankie is discovered witnessing this, he is strangled nearly to death by the black figure.
Upon waking up in a hospital bed, Frankie learns that his attacker was most likely a child murderer that's been wanted for the past 10 years, and that the little girl he saw was the ghost of one the man's victims. As Frankie begins to search for the truth behind the death of the little girl, he finds himself learning more secrets about his seemingly sleepy little town -- secrets that include a mysterious old woman (Katherine Helmond, Brazil) and the legendary Lady in White.
Watching Lady in White 17 years later, my reactions were similar to that first viewing. Yes, I saw a number of flaws that I was too young to notice or care about the first time around -- the intensely personal approach and LaLoggia's inexperience (he had directed only one feature previously) make for a film that's rather sloppily made at times. The pacing is uneven, the photography is a bit too static, and the editing is clumsy. The resolution is somewhat unsatisfying -- but, then, that's often the case with ghost stories, as they rely too heavily on real-world explanations. Perhaps the greatest offense, however, is the sweepingly amateurish, too-intrusive orchestral score composed by LaLoggia himself. Like a lot of the movie, it suffers from the writer/director's unending sincerity and attachment to the material -- he can't resist the obvious underscoring of every emotional beat and a blatantly manipulative quality. The score is the one element of the film that just doesn't work.
The rest of the movie is able to overcome those obstacles I've already mentioned -- I would argue, in fact, that they help to make the film the unique experience that it is. The special effects, for example, might be considered schlocky or even comical by today's digital standards (they weren't even state-of-the-art at the time, given the limitations of the movie's budget), but they work perfectly for the movie. There's a quality to them that at times feels like a memory; at others, like a dream. You can feel LaLoggia's unabashed affection for the project in every frame of Lady in White, and in an age where the majority of horror films are cold, cynical, demographic-driven machinations, that's a pretty special thing. This is a movie made with a great deal of love: love of family, love of home, love of the past, love of the curiosity and mystery of youth, love of all things spooky. The reason, I believe, that it spoke so much as a child -- and continues to speak to me as an adult -- is because we're transported back along with LaLoggia. His film is so well realized and so heartfelt that we're not just watching his childhood, we're watching our own. He also has a real handle on what scares us as children, and his film is able to immediately make us identify with that. In fact, despite the PG-13 rating, I would suggest that Lady in White makes a perfect introduction for young people into the world of supernatural and horror films.
Sony's new release of Lady in White marks the second time the film has seen the DVD format (the first version, put out by Elite Entertainment, has been out of print and rather hard to come by for a few years). That's probably for the best, as this edition includes a number of previously unavailable special features -- I'll get to those in a second. The movie is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that's by no means perfect, but looks rather nice for a fairly dated, low-budget film. The 5.1 audio track brings some strong dimensionality to the sound, putting every channel to good use at the appropriate moments; as atmospheric as the film can be at times, there are plenty of appropriate moments. The track even gives a boost to the syrupy score by LaLoggia -- not particularly desirable for this critic, but I suppose not giving the right treatment would have been an even bigger mistake.
There's a whole bunch of bonus material included on this Sony (formerly MGM) disc, making it a worthy "Special Edition" despite the fact that it hasn't been labeled such. The major inclusion is an all-new commentary track from writer/director/co-star/producer/composer Frank LaLoggia. Because he took such great pains to bring this story to the screen, and because he was involved in nearly every aspect of the production, LaLoggia's track is incredibly detailed and knowledgeable. He points out scenes that are new to this version of the film (it runs slightly longer, adding scenes that primarily flesh out some character relationships and making this edition a kind of unofficial "director's cut"), and even manages to make a case for the story being told as a flashback (he didn't want it told through the perspective of a young boy, but rather as the stylized memories of a grown-up who is surrounded by fiction -- an argument I can actually buy). However, those same qualifications make LaLoggia a bit too sentimental and unapologetically in love with his own film -- he's gushingly sincere almost to the point of being pompous. Of course, I recognize that these criticisms speak much more to my own personal issues and possibly don't reflect on LaLoggia at all, but I feel inclined to report my reactions.
Also included on the disc are some additional deleted scenes (those that weren't already cut back into this edition of the movie, and most of which further explore character relationships rather than propel the plot), a rather unnecessary video introduction by LaLoggia, two separate photo galleries, the original theatrical trailer, and some behind-the-scenes footage shot during the film's production. This last segment also features a video introduction by LaLoggia, making him somewhat ever-present on the DVD -- kind of the like the movie itself.
I was happy to see Lady in White hold up after all these years; the things I found magical about it as a boy are same things that I see in it today. For the price, it's absolutely worth picking up -- if only just to put it on once a year at Halloween. It's by no means a perfect movie, but it is a special one, and I think I'd rather have the latter. Lady in White made me feel like a kid again. Not many films are able to do that.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Introduction by Writer/Director Frank LaLoggia
* Commentary by Writer/Director Frank LaLoggia
* Deleted Scenes
* Behind-the-Scenes Footage with Introduction
* Behind-the-Scenes Photo Montage
* Extended Photo Gallery
* Original Theatrical Trailer