Lady in White (1988)

Frankie Scarlotti (Lukas Haas) gets a front row seat to a ghost story. "Lady in White."

Written and directed by Frank LaLoggia. Produced by Frank LaLoggia, Andrew G. LaMarca. Photographed by Russell Carpenter. Edited by Steve Mann. Production designed by Richard K. Hummell. Starring Lukas Haas, Len Cariou, Alex Rocco, Katherine Helmond, Jason Presson, Renata Vanni, Angelo Bertoloni, Joelle Jacobi, Jared Rushton.

Details. I think one of the biggest factors that separates a bad story from a good one is attention to detail. Yes, theme and character and plot are all necessary ingredients to the soup of storytelling, but attention to detail can go a long way towards redeeming a run-of-the-mill narrative, and tilting it towards quality. Details tickle me in that sweet spot that all audiences members have, because they illustrate a sense of observation, a wry wit, a quiet method of world-building that will often elevate a concept into a full-blooded story, in unanticipated ways. And  they just plain communicate passion. I would rather listen to a heartfelt tale that has some problems than a cynical cash-grab that is technically flawless, except for its lack of soul.

Lady in White is a film more like the former. It’s the kind of movie where you can make a little list, if you were so inclined, of things it does oddly, or ham-fistedly, or in a way that’s unrefined. It’s clearly the work of a director with not much experience, and a production with not very much money. It sometimes reads a little flat, whether via the occasional actor who feels disconnected from the story, or an emotional beat that’s drawn out just a little too long. But you see, these aren’t exactly fatal flaws; they’re quirks that reinforce a homespun, gentle quality to it that provide an effervescent sense of good will. I can imagine a slicker, more expensive version of this material from Hollywood, but not one that would retain its innocence. Though maybe their resources are thin, this movie is clearly made by people who haven’t been enslaved by the studio system into making product. It’s pure.

Lady in White is a horror film, the kind of quiet-whisper ghost story that gets a lot more play in books and campfire tales than in movies (and indeed it is based on a classic urban legend of a ghostly woman who haunts Rochester, NY). Perhaps this kind of story is so underrepresented on film because movies believe horror must usually come with a gory and mean-spirited component. Instead, it’s told in a minor key, a kind that Stephen King would approve of: one that gets involved in family dramas and small-town concerns first, and then deals with the presence of a mysterious ghost and a killer. This strategy is not often employed in horror films, perhaps because it requires patience and talent, but its rewards are vast, because it shows lives that are pulled aside by the supernatural rather than marking time waiting for it.

The time is 1962, and the star of the film is Lukas Haas, who played an Amish boy witness to a murder in, erm, Witness (1985) and here watches an entire town grapple with violence and buried secrets. Why did he get selected for both roles? I credit his eyes: wide, almost anime-style peepers that seem to drink in the world around him (even when wearing a Halloween mask) while everyone else is distracted. Haas is now a grown actor, and a good one, but back then he was good too, playing Frankie Scarlatti, the kind of kid who tells imaginative stories in front of class, earning him disdain from bullies but adoration from the cute girl with braces. That girl with braces, man…every class had one, didn’t they? Anyways, the setup here, involving Frank’s relationships with his family and peers is nicely realized, as are the moments held by Frankie’s grade school teacher, who is not cruel or oblivious, just keenly non-fluent in the language that kids have to communicate troublemaking. Haas’ own abilities as a young actor carry an extended sequence where bullies lock him in a school cloakroom overnight, in a cruel prank.

Two key events will flavor Frankie’s overnight stay in the cloakroam: firstly, an apparition that shows Frankie the death of a young girl, and then a flesh and blood masked man, who seems fixed on doing something with a metal grate in the floor before discovering Frankie and attacking him, which is a chilling moment because it jars so resoundingly (and intentionally) with the opening moments of small-town sweetness. When Frankie is later discovered and visits the hospital before being sent home, we are relieved to see that Frankie doesn’t have the typical horror movie parents: you know, the kind that make stupid decisions and give their children carte blanche to run around at night and get killed. Instead, his dad (Alex Rocco, in a genuine and terrific performance) is concerned and sensitive.

What this crime kicks off is a mystery, and so I will be careful not to ruin plot details, but I will say it involves an investigation into Frankie’s assailant that seems to link with a murder mystery from several years ago, one that definitely has a connection with the girl who keeps appearing in visions to Frankie, asking him to solve it. And it definitely seems connected to the family friend Phil (Len Cariou), or the titular lady in white (Katherine Helmond), who lives alone in a decrepit house as a living shrine seemingly dedicated to Miss Havisham. Indeed, you could make the argument there’s a lot of Dickens in the movie, with its put-upon young hero who meets a criminal, its colorful characters, its environs that turn gloomy, and its non-intrusive attention to social issues: here, there is a pause for a little subplot about racial profiling that is made all the more poignant for both the way it ends and for the time it takes place.

The mechanics of how everything gets resolved of course I will not say, not only because it would be spoiling, but also because it’s beside the point. Mysteries, in and of themselves, are not interesting. But a mystery as a vehicle to look at an environment? Ah, now there you have something. A mystery is in fact the perfect mode to tell a story that is about a place, because only by sorting out the particulars of that place and understanding it can a protagonist have that eureka moment. And so that’s what happens here as, the writer/director, Frank LaLoggia, captures the rhythms of small-town life as he traces through a police investigation, town outrage, and the story of a family that doesn’t want ghosts or murders in their lives, thank you very much (there’s a nice scene where Rocco involves himself in the police investigation, convinced they’ve arrested a scapegoat—and his words feels like an elegy for lost innocence). The disparity between innocence and murder is conveyed without cheapening either.

I mentioned the sense of detail, and it’s present in spades: in the costumes, the props, the period cars and the gee-whiz sensibilities that never become too cloying. The cinematography by Russell Carpenter is nicely understated, bringing a gauzy, dreamlike quality to the scenes as they navigate between recollection and nightmare. And the script finds little moments that connect with us through the artificial barriers of time, like the recognizable way Frankie’s brother Geno (like many brothers) is sometimes a pain, sometimes sincere, and sometimes both at the same time. And the way people in small towns seem to live on each other’s porches. And also the way it precursors The Sixth Sense, another intelligent ghost story, in the way it depicts a spirit that wants to see a purpose fulfilled, not just haunt people for no reason. Many ghost stories are simply about restless spirits being scary, but this one is more humanistic and sees them for what they are, lives cut tragically short, that cry out for solace.

Since there are indeed ghosts in the movie, there are of course special effects. Special effects are a curious thing, however, because their quality can greatly become influenced by the story they are in. I, personally can put up with a lot of flaws in effects when I’m nevertheless persuaded by the flow of the storytelling, which is why the original King Kong, which speaks with such a crude but significant authority, has not been made obsolete by newer models with flashier effects. The effects in Lady in White are, on face value, not very good, but since we’re dealing with ghosts anyway, what is believable and what isn’t? Think about it. Sure, a climactic moment looks obviously done with matte lines and an optical printer, but who really wants a realistic-looking ghost, and what would that even mean? And anyway, by this point, the ending is so deeply intertwined with the power of the storytelling that you forgive. Even the film’s framing sequence, of a grown-up Frankie, now an author, coming home and reminiscing while standing over a grave, is maybe a mite over-earnest, but also plays the way good fiction reads, slowly drawing us into a yarn.

It may sound like I’m making excuses. Well, perhaps I am. I think we are allowed to do that in our critiques, as long we are honest with ourselves. True, Lady in White has its aspects that many would scoff at, including its honoring of time-honored mystery clichés, right down to its ending that involves a gathering of unlikely people at a high cliff, as if they knew the ending requires one. But Lady in White is heartfelt and sweet, and even when it brings in Italian stereotypes like Frankie’s whatsamattayou uncle, they are delivered with more integrity than one would expect. So, yes, there are flaws…but it’s difficult to care too much about that.

Lady in White is a little movie, doesn’t have much spectacle, sometimes a little frail in its direction and acting. If this were work from Martin Scorsese, we would give him what for. But it’s also clearly a labor of love, and that does a lot to make it a pleasant experience, one where we just savor a good story, divorced from hype. We live in an age that is obsessed with pop culture, and there are a lot of problems with such an existence. But here is one of the bonuses: being allowed to go back and find something, and discover that is a buried treasure. Lady in White is kind of like that, too–a little buried treasure. And if it has more than a little dirt and rust, that’s ok; in fact it makes us like it just a little bit more. It’s allowed.

GRADE: B+

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