As a young boy of about 11 or 12, I fell in love with Frank LaLoggia’s 1988 ghost story 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 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—a good ghost story, better yet—and had done so with grace, class, and a lot of heart. Even as a kid, that much was evident.
Horror author Frankie Scarlatti (an uncredited LaLoggia) recalls one fateful autumn from his youth, shortly after the passing of his mother. Young Frankie (played in flashback by Lukas Haas) is seen growing up in his Italian-American home in the early 1960s, son of the grieving Angelo Scarlatti (Alex Rocco) and younger brother to mischievous teenager Geno (Jason Presson). One afternoon following his school’s Halloween party, Frankie is locked in the classroom’s coatroom by a couple of bullies. While trapped inside, 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 spotted, the black figure strangles him nearly to death.
Upon waking up in a hospital bed, Frankie learns that his attacker was most likely a child murderer who’s been wanted for the past ten years, and that the little girl he saw was the ghost of one of the man’s victims. As Frankie searches for the truth behind the death of the little girl, he learns more secrets about his seemingly sleepy little town—secrets that include a mysterious old woman (Katherine Helmond) and the legendary Lady in White.
Watching Lady in White again all these years later on Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray, 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 a little messy in its construction at times. The pacing is uneven, the photography a bit too static, the editing clumsy. The resolution is also somewhat unsatisfying, but then, that’s often the case with ghost stories, as they rely too heavily on real world explanations.
Like a lot of the movie, the sweeping, sentimental, and sometimes too intrusive orchestral score composed by LaLoggia himself suffers from the writer/director’s unending sincerity and attachment to the material; he can’t resist underscoring every emotional beat with a blatantly manipulative quality. The score is the one element of the film that just doesn’t quite work for me as well as everything else, even when I appreciate what it’s going for and admire LaLoggia’s true DIY approach to filmmaking.
But the rest of the movie easily overcomes these obstacles. 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 many studio horror films are 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 that it spoke to me so much as a child—and continues to speak to me as an adult—is because it transports us back in time along with LaLoggia. His film is so well-realized and 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 immediately makes us identify with those old fears. 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.
Scream Factory’s excellent Blu-ray of Lady in White offers three separate versions of the movie (in what seems like a new trend in the company’s releases). On the first disc is the 117-minute director’s cut presented in 1080p HD; except for contrast issues in some of the darker scenes, the movie looks very good in high-def. The second disc contains two additional cuts of Lady in White: the original 113-minute theatrical cut and a new 126-minute “extended cut” that includes never-before-seen footage. Both versions are also presented in 1080p HD, though the new footage in the extended cut is easy to spot because, while still being watchable, it’s not quite up to the same quality standards as the rest of the movie.
Many of the bonus features from the movie’s past DVD releases have been included (both the original Elite disc and the MGM special edition reissue), kicking off with LaLoggia’s thoughtful and sincere commentary on the director’s cut found on the first disc. There is an optional (and very brief) introduction to the movie by LaLoggia, who also introduces an extended montage of behind-the-scenes footage. Also included is a collection of deleted scenes, two photo galleries, and the original theatrical trailer.
I was happy to see Lady in White hold up after all these years and be given such respectful, loving treatment by Scream Factory (with the helpful participation of Frank LaLoggia). The three different versions of the movie, including the new “extended” cut, are, at the very least, a curiosity and at the best an exhaustive account of what is so clearly a labor of love from everyone involved, none more so than the writer/director. The things I found magical about the film as a boy are the same things I see in it today. It’s by no means a perfect movie, but it is a special one, and I’d rather have the latter. Revisiting Lady in White makes me feel like a kid again. Not many films are able to do that.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4/5