The Lady in White would have made a really good novel. It’s a serial killer mystery, ghost story, and a coming of age tale that touches on everything from the death of a parent to the racial inequalities of small town life in the 1960’s. Sadly, The Lady of White is not a novel; it’s a film, and it’s one that crams a novel’s worth of story into the comparatively scant space that a motion picture allows. However, writer/director Frank LaLoggia’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ode to his childhood in upstate New York throws so much at the wall that something is bound to stick.
Frankie (Haas) is a boy whose imagination is as big as his saucer eyes would suggest. He lives with his widowed father (Rocco), older brother, and seemingly fresh off the boat Italian grandparents in a small town straight out of a Rockwell painting. One Halloween, Frankie is the victim of a cruel prank by some bullies, and finds himself locked in the school cloak room overnight. While he is there, Frankie sees the ghost of a young girl, and witnesses her murder at the hands of an invisible killer. As she struggles, Frankie sees something fall off of her and into a grate on the floor. Just as the specter vanishes, the door to the cloak room opens, and a hooded man enters the room, opens the grate, and begins to dig around until he notices Frankie. The enraged man starts to strangle Frankie, but, just when the boy thinks he’s drawn his last breath, he awakens to his father and the local sheriff standing over him. While Frankie is safe for the moment, he can’t shake the image of the young girl, and she returns to him to ask for his help in finding her mother; an apparition who walks the cliffs outside of town that the locals refer to as “the lady in white.”
The Lady in White is a hard film to describe as there’s just so much going on here that it defies categorization. The inclusion of ghosts and a serial killer would suggest a horror film, but much of that is presented in such a whimsical fashion that I found it more of a light fantasy. The coming-of-age stuff is straight out of a Capra film, filled with kid-friendly jokes, sight gags, and the sort of wistful and nostalgic commentary that is the hallmark of films like Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story or Stand by Me. Then, on top of all of that, there’s a rather disturbing subplot involving a black janitor being wrongfully accused of the child murders of which Frankie’s cherubic spirit was the first victim. It’s like LaLoggia was making the perfect lasagna and then decided to fill it with peanut butter, marbles, and a bag of screws; there’s too much in here, and, sadly, most of it just plain doesn’t belong!
Still, one can’t deny the film’s charms. LaLoggia does a great job of transporting the viewer back to the halcyon days of 1962, and paints Frankie’s world with a lovingly nostalgic brush. The film is shot very well, with some gorgeously surreal set pieces, although, admittedly, the 80’s blue screen effects have held up about as well as a pair of Ricki Lake’s neon pink leg warmers. I also found the serial killer story suitably creepy, especially for what many consider to be a family-friendly horror flick. There’s a moment here where the killer pummels a victim in silhouette that mirrors a scene in 1968’s Oliver! where Oliver Reed’s Jack Sikes beats up a prostitute behind a barrel. I don’t know if LaLoggia meant this as homage to Carol Reed’s film, but the effect is similarly disturbing and wonderfully orchestrated.
The DVD from MGM/Sony features the film in a special “director’s cut”, as well as a bunch of extras that I found to be about as odd as the movie itself. There’s a positively freakish introduction by LaLoggia, in which he beams into the camera like manic depressive hypnotist who’s forgotten to take his Zoloft, and delivers a well-rehearsed speech about the version of the film we’re seeing here. LaLoggia also offers and introduction to a slough of deleted scenes with optional commentary, as well as a feature-length commentary on the film itself. In addition to this, there’s also an abundance of rough looking behind-the-scenes footage, photo galleries, trailer, and more.
While I wasn’t exactly bowled over by The Lady in White, the film did push a few of my buttons, and it’s one I have a feeling I’ll revisit. However, I’m well aware of this movie’s huge fan base, and, for them, this is a must-buy DVD.