Oct 20, 2014


Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now…one at a time.

Dir. Frank LaLoggia
New Sky Productions
United States

"The bells of St. Andrews were soothingly familiar, even in those strange surroundings. It wasn't long before I drifted off to sleep, comforted by their ancient voices. ...It was All Hallow's Eve, and I, still locked behind the cloak-room door, suddenly felt a wind sweep through the darkness, chilling me to the bone..."

Nostalgia. That, more than anything, is what fuels my love for Halloween. It's just a day on the calendar, of course, and one which I anticipate more than any other, but it's also a feeling. It's indescribable, intangible. Never more has a day been so ably defined by an entire scene found in paintings, photography, or hazy memories — sprawling pumpkin fields, forests filled with orange and golden leaves, red barns with white trim and a scarecrow poking out of the cornfield around back. This type of iconography triggers a feeling more than any other. It's wilderness, rustic, and somewhat uncivilized. It's an outlaw; a misfit. Halloween wasn't born in the streets or in a book. It was born outside under the moon, in the woods, amongst people honoring something bigger than themselves (with a little help from the Church). And like most holidays and traditions with ancient origins, it doesn't quite resemble what it once was. But it's still the closest. It changed over time because it's had to. To me, it's become rural America. Small towns. Main Street. Crepe paper on doors. Dead and dying leaves blowing across front yards. It's the end of summer and the pinnacle of autumn. It's changing seasons and changing leaves. It's embracing the night and giving yourself to the dark. And it's opening the front door to the vampire waiting on your front porch, who cannot enter unless invited. It's not lighting jack-o-lanterns or brewing the cider or smearing the greasepaint across your face that beckons another October 31st into being. It's anticipation. It's simply wanting it to be here and not wanting it to leave. And it's facing the fact that, sadly, as you get older, the things that used to bring you so much joy don't seem nearly as special as they used to be.


When I interviewed singer/songwriter Lonesome Wyatt for a 2013 Halloween post, his answer to one of my questions has stuck with me ever since: 
"The idea of Halloween is much better than the stinking reality."
He succinctly put into words what I'd discovered over the years as I found myself one year older every Halloween. As the years go by, it seems I foolishly try to force Halloween to feel a certain way, by the activities in which I partake or the company I keep or the foods and drinks (and pumpkin beer) I consume. More and more I am learning that this, not for lack of trying, doesn't work. Halloween simply was, and I've got to make peace with that fact. Instead of trying to make it feel the way I remember it being, I need to look back on the things I treasured that were synonymous with it.

Enter Lady in White.

It was Halloween. I was in fourth grade. I couldn't tell you what particular costume I wore that year, or what games we played at our class party. But I can tell you, at some point, the lights went dim, a television on a cart borrowed from the school library was rolled to the front of the room, and Lady in White was soon playing in front of us all. Though there's nothing inherently offensive or ghastly about the film, it was still an unusual choice to show to a classroom filled with elementary school students, considering the film features the ghost of a girl acting out her death and being strangled in mid-air as she screams out for her mother to help her, backseat assassinations, and ever-so-subtle allusions to molestation and sexual perversion. I sat rapt, my eyes glued to the screen, unable to help but immediately put myself into the shoes of the very young protagonist, who looked to be the same age as me. He was shy, and bullied, and he had an older brother who was sometimes his friend and sometimes his foe...just like me. It was Halloween in real life, but also in the film. The scenes involving the ghost of the departed took place in a school classroom, the very same place I was sitting.

At that formative moment, Lady in White was gospel.

Frankie Scarlatti, small-town native and successful horror novelist, is going home. Not home to Los Angeles, his present, but home to Willowpoint Falls, his past, where he lived as a child.

Following a brief monologue set in the present, it's back in time to Halloween, 1962, in Willowpoint Falls, where two brothers, Frankie (Lukas Haas) and Geno (Jason Presson)  race to school on their bicycles — from their rural farm where three generations of the Scarlatti family live and work, through the woods, and down to the heart of their quaint little town's main street, where they call hello by name to the people they pass. Shopkeepers decorate their front windows with bright and cheerful homages to October, and fill baskets with candy corn by the shovelful. Much like the charming name of the charming town filled with charming, small-town people, it is idyllic; nirvana; perfect.

"What's it like living in Los Angeles?" the cabbie asks in the present-day prologue as he drives Frankie home down clean quiet streets strewn with autumn leaves.

"It's...different," he answers.

"Yeah..." the cabbie says, as if to suggest no other place on earth could ever feel like home besides Willowpoint Falls.

Back in the past and later that day, once class lets out, two bullies trick Frankie back into their classroom's cloakroom and lock him in for a Halloween prank. After beating against the door, Frankie falls asleep...and later awakens when he hears the soft voice of a young girl. She's in the closet with him, singing and dancing — and Frankie can see right through her. Soon her singing comes to an end, as she begins fighting off an invisible attacker who has slowly begun strangling her. She eventually succumbs, and the sound of something small and metal bounces across the floor and into the floor vent. Frankie is understandably terrified...and it gets worse when someone else — someone quite real — comes into the very same closet with a flashlight, hunting for the very same object that bounced into the vent. Frankie is spotted and attacked by the man, eventually passing out. He dreams of the girl he just met and finds out her name: Melissa. She's looking for her mother, she tells him. And then he wakes up on the floor of the cloakroom, his father before him, a concerned cop shining a flashlight over both of them. The school is swept for suspects, and Harold Williams, the janitor — the black janitor — is arrested, though there is no evidence to suggest he was responsible. He is charged with the attack on Frankie, as well as for the murders of several missing kids over the last ten years, Melissa being the first. A sad end, it would seem, but at least an ending.

Until Frankie realizes that Melissa has followed him home.

Lady in White is an old-fashioned film made by an old-fashioned filmmaker. From what I have gathered, the film is somewhat autobiographical, and because of that personal connection, the film feels very personal. It's also kind of a peculiar final product in that the story seems to transform as the plot demands. Criticisms lobbed at the film call its plot confused and its tone uneven. I can't really say I disagree with either, as there are certain unfortunate plot holes, and the two bickering Scarlatti grandparents provide really the only comic relief in what is a pretty dour and dark film geared toward younger viewers. It's a strange hybrid of legitimate horror, fantasy, comedy, thriller, and Frank Capra. And it's about twenty minutes too long. At times it almost becomes a game of, "What else can we cram into this thing?" Despite that, the journey you'll take with this film is a strong one, and there are constant twists and turns along the way that you won't see coming.

Lukas Haas leads the cast as young Frankie, making his second appearance in a major film (the first being Witness with Harrison Ford). Though he still acts intermittently today, his roles have been mostly blink-and-miss cameos, like his turn as a union soldier in Spielberg's Lincoln, or as Failure from Inception. In Lady in White, he's all doe-eyed, big-eared, and pixy-voiced; he provides all the necessary adorable little-boy requirements to make for a sympathetic lead.

Alex Rocco, as Frankie's father, Al, is awesome, because Alex Rocco is always awesome. His voice is instantly recognizable, and his presence is both reassuring and intimidating. He seems to be the only adult in all of Willowpoint Falls vocal about Harold Williams' innocence and the audience likes him for it. Granted, the mystery of the killer's identity is kept a secret until the end, but we all know from the very start that Harold is not to blame — especially with some characters flat-out calling him a perfect scapegoat. (Why? "Because he's black!") Rocco brings a lot of weight to his role and embodies that kind of small-town father unafraid to speak up against bureaucracy. Plus, I mean, the guy played Moe Green in The Godfather. No shit he's awesome.

Lastly, Karen Powell as the titular lady has the least amount of screen time, but the most affecting performance. She is at once hauntingly heartbroken and eerily ambient. Her visage pervades as an urban legend, but she is quite real, and her pain is paramount.

So much of Lady in White rides on the imagery either eerie and beautiful (or both) that writer/director/semi-autobiographical-film-subject Frank LaLoggia creates. Nearly every other frame of the film could be captured, isolated, and hung on a wall. Alternately, every other frame feels like the nightmares you had as a child. Special mention must be made of Frankie's dream about his mother's funeral — everyone there is obscured by darkness and not moving an inch, giving their fuzzy presence a disturbing and surreal appearance, but their sea of hushed crying echoes throughout the church; the spotlight is on Frankie only as he peers into his mother's coffin. The geography of his dream doesn't make sense, as it has suddenly changes, and now he sees his mother sitting in a chair in the middle of an unfurnished room, a pair of double-doors wide open behind her, allowing in the sun and a sight of Frankie's father and brother having a catch in front of a sea of cornstalks.

"Don't leave me," he says to her.

"How could I ever leave you?" she responds.

Cut back to her funeral.


Strangely, given the kind of reputation that Lady in White has garnered (some people consider it a classic, and it currently boasts a very respectable 6.7 on IMDB), LaLoggia only ever made this, the pretty cheesy Fear No Evil before this, and a 1995 thriller that looks as if it went direct to video. Otherwise he's been fairly quiet over the years, and I wonder why. 

Lady in White gets all the credit in the world for having the balls, the gall, the nerve, to treat its kid audience like...gasp...people. There are a lot of heavy themes at play here: racism in "perfect" small towns, death of a parent, child murder, pedophilia. None of it's ever taken lightly and none of it is ever cheaply exploited. Though one could argue there's simply too much going on within the story (I would not fight you on that), all of these themes never feel extraneous. A sort of To Kill a Mockingbird with a supernatural twist, what begins as a ghost story soon transformers into a familial drama and an allegory for race, and then unfortunately devolves into a rather standard thriller on which Hollywood depended and still depends.

The visual effects on display are, twenty-five years later, almost laughably outdated, but they're not undone due to their ingenuity and construct. They're perfectly geared toward its young audience, almost comic-bookish in their design.

Ultimately, Halloween is a device that kicks off the strange and twisty-turny events that make up Lady in White (it's Christmastime exactly halfway through), but the supernatural elements are consistent enough to safely label it a horror film, and thus, appropriate for some Halloween watching. What keeps me coming back is the healthy injection of nostalgia and small-town Americana for which I yearn more and more as the years go by.

Lady in White isn't a perfect film, but the ambiance that it creates, and the feeling of childhood nostalgia it set out to establish, is.

My thanks to She Blogged By Night for the screencaps.

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