It opens with an autumnal homecoming, as so many of the best ghost stories do.
Franklin Scarlatti, a bestselling Los Angeles-based horror writer, lands in an anonymous, unremarkable American airport. Hailing a taxi, he asks the driver to take him to Willowpoint Falls. As the car sweeps through the bucolic, sourball-colored October landscape, he chats with the driver, who has recognized him. Scarlatti asks him to pull up to a desolate graveyard.
Inside the wrought-iron gates, the writer and the cabbie stand in front of two modest, weatherworn gravestones. “You knew them?” asks the driver. “Long time ago,” replies Scarlatti. Then, after a perfect pause, the driver says, “You don’t really believe all that spooky stuff you write about, do you?”
And we’re off.
As someone who writes scary stories, I’m frequently asked what my favourite horror movies are, particularly around Halloween, when the question becomes, “What’s your favourite Halloween movie?”
I have the stock answers at the ready: the original Halloween (1978) and Halloween II (1979), Trick Or Treat (1986), Trick R Treat (2007), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993.)
However, when I’m asked what I consider essential viewing on Halloween night, I always answer Lady In White, a title that instantly divides the listeners into one of two camps: the generic omnivorous horror film watcher, or the cognoscenti.
Lady In White is an esoteric gem from 1988 by Frank LaLoggia, a filmmaker born and raised in Rochester, NY. The story takes elements from a local Rochester legend about the ghost of a woman who haunts Durand-Eastman Park, searching for her daughter.
The film, an extended flashback, truly begins in 1962. Nine-year-old Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is growing up in Willowpoint Falls in a multigenerational Italian-American family composed of his grandparents (Angelo Bertolini and the legendary Renata Vanni in a critically-acclaimed turn as Mamma Assunta) his father, Angelo (Alex Rocco), and his brother, Geno (Jason Presson.)
On Halloween night, he’s the subject of a cruel after-school prank by two of his classmates: he is locked inside his classroom’s cloakroom, and left. Terrified and alone, he eventually falls asleep and dreams of his late mother’s funeral. Waking in tears, he encounters the ghost of a little girl, Melissa Ann Montgomery (Joelle Jacobi) and witnesses what appears to be a spectral reenactment of her murder. Moments later, the cloakroom door bursts open. Frankie is attacked and nearly killed by an assailant he cannot recognize in the dark. While unconscious, he has a vision of the little girl, who reveals that she is looking for her mother and pleads for his help. His father, who has learned about the prank from the bullies, rescues him.
During his recovery, Frankie realizes that he is the sole survivor of a series of eleven serial attacks on children in the area between 1952 and 1962, and that Melissa, the ghost girl he encountered in the cloakroom, had been one of the victims.
Even writing this, I’m absurdly conscious of spoilers, which strikes me as a tad precious, given that the film came out in 1988 and there are already reams of reviews, articles, and essays about Lady In White available, a click away. But, like all of us who love it, I’m protective. Wikipedia alone carries a detailed synopsis, so I won’t take up your time with summaries here.
Suffice to say that the arc of the story is Frankie’s attempt to reunite his Melissa with her mother. Along the way, he uncovers the horrifying secret of Melissa’s murder, suffering a critical loss of his own innocence in the process, and unconsciously laying the groundwork for his own writer’s life.
I was born in 1962, the year in which the film was set. Nine years later, in 1971, like Frankie I was a boy who dreamed of being a writer when I grew up.
There is a scene early on, where Frankie, dressed in his department store Dracula costume, is asked to read a Halloween story he’s written to the class. His teacher, Miss La Della (Lucy Lee Flippin) shushes the bullies who sneer and catcall, but within minutes Frankie realizes he has the class eating out of his hand, suddenly realizing, perhaps for the first time, that the shy, gentle, awkward, maybe even weird boy they’ve overlooked has a talent that causes them to sit up straight and notice. It’s an aha! moment not unfamiliar to many of us who go on to write books.
Likewise, the scene in the middle of the film, when Frankie reverently withdraws his first typewriter from the cardboard box in which it has been sent. It’s his prize for selling a requisite number of greeting cards, another aha! moment that goes straight to my heart, taking me back to the Christmas of 1972, when my mother surprised me my first typewriter, a manual Smith Corona she’d used in college.
Like Stephen King’s novels IT and Stand By Me, or Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, or Dan Simmons’ novel Summer of Night, LaLoggia’s Lady In White is the story of a boy growing up in what is colloquially referred to as “a more innocent time,” and trying to navigate the world in which he finds himself.
Paradoxically, it’s a PG-rated film that doesn’t seem like one. Unlike so many “family friendly” ghost stories, Lady In White is entirely free of the saccharine aftertaste that plagues so many films written for a “family” audience by writers who appear to have entirely forgotten what it was like to be a child. There is darkness in Lady In White, and it’s real and pitiless—the serial murder of children, the death of a parent, the betrayal of a child by a well-loved adult, violence, racial prejudice, and terrible family secrets.
The film is secondarily set against the backdrop of the early civil-rights era, as a ten-year old boy growing up in a predominantly white heartland might have seen it. It features a poignant, and ultimately violent, subplot involving an African American janitor being scapegoated for the attack on Frankie and the murders of the eleven children.
In an otherwise generous review in the New York Times, LaLoggia was taken to task by reviewer Caryn James for “the heavy-handed subplot involving 60’s racism [which] loads the film with more social weight than it can handle.”
It’s a criticism of the film I have heard before, and with all due respect to Ms. James, I disagree completely, and here’s why. At the heart of it, Lady In White is a film about morality and justice, and the morality guiding it is Frankie’s—the morality of a well-taught nine-year-old boy driven by instinctive goodness and imagination. The same impulse that drives him to help Melissa find her mother and heal her pain is the one that allows Frankie to see the ugly racism of his peers, and the adults of his town, and call it out for what it is. The film is more than able to bear the weight of that commentary.
Interestingly enough, that “heavy-handed” period racial subplot is perhaps more relevant in 2016 than it was in 1988, when the film came out, which is something even the New York Times couldn’t have guessed.
With the thousands of now-forgotten films that have come out since 1988, Lady In White continues to tell a story containing such eternal truths that it is loved—revered, even—by millions of people all over the world, and discovered by many others with every passing year.
While writing this, I emailed my best friend, L.A.-based film director Ron Oliver who in the mid-80s wrote what he since describes as “a loud-mouthed, slam-bang, slightly satirical haunted high school movie” called Prom Night II: Hello Mary Lou. He’s a savvy fellow, and a snappy dresser, and he’s gone on to very great things.
Ron and I both grew up in the 60s and 70s, both of us horror film fans. I went on to write novels, he went on to write and direct television and movies, including the now-classic kids’ horror television series Goosebumps and Are You Afraid Of The Dark. Our tastes diverge in many ways, but Ron and I both agree on Lady In White.
“When I saw Mr. LaLoggia’s beautiful Lady In White,” he wrote, “I realized that horror stories were often best told quietly, with the terror gently creeping up behind you, fangs a-bloodied. I also learned that a tale of childhood fear didn’t necessarily mean ‘childish,’ and this lesson came in handy while I was writing and directing Are You Afraid Of The Dark. Also, that the relationships and bonds between children at Frankie’s age are among the most powerful on earth.”
Twenty-eight years after first seeing Lady In White, I still can’t entirely hold back the tears in the scene near the end of the film, when Frankie reunites Melissa with her mother—herself a ghost, the titular Lady in White, whom we discover killed herself upon discovering the body of her murdered daughter.
In telling the story of a nine-year-old boy who dedicates himself to helping the ghost of a ten-year-old girl find her mother, LaLoggia renders a beautiful iteration of the instinctive friendships between girls and boys at that age, before the gender self-segregation so often imposed on them hermetically seals them off from those types of effortless, egalitarian friendships until after puberty. I’d like to think that LaLoggia’s intention was that Frankie realize that he had given Melissa a gift, a joy he himself would never know.
I hope I never lose the part of myself that responds to that scene as I do. My tears suggest to me that even as a fifty-four-year-old man, I might still open to magic and the belief in goodness as an objective power, particularly in children like the one I was at nine—like Frankie, a nascent writer already looking at the world with a writer’s eye, seeing thing things that are literally invisible to the people around them.
On the other hand, you could watch Lady In White simply for the brilliantly written familial relationships: Frankie’s matriarchal Italian grandmother lovingly battling her husband over his smoking; Frankie’s tender relationship with his widower father; Frankie’s occasionally tempestuous but always loving relationship with his prankster older brother, Geno; Frankie’s moony crush on his classmate, Mary Ellen (Lisa Taylor); and perhaps most poignantly, Frankie’s father’s doomed relationship with his tormented best friend, Phil (Len Cariou.)
It’s a film for anyone with a conscious memory of an early-60s to early70s- era childhood spent growing up in a world which, while far from perfect, still managed to limit the distractions of encroaching adulthood, allowing the flower of a child’s imagination bloom without the incursion of reality television, the 24-hour news cycle, or the Internet.
But mostly it’s a film about being loved, and being healed by love.
To me, the heart of Lady In White might be found in Frankie’s vision of Melissa while he is unconscious in pitch-blackness of the cloakroom. Pleading with him to help her find her mother, she asks him, “Don’t you know where you’d like to be going?” Frankie replies. “To my home. In my own bed.”
That yearning to go home, whatever “home” might mean, is one that never entirely leaves many of us, though it may take other forms.
At our core, many of us retain a yearning for security, stability, a yearning for a vision of home as a warm place, where friendly ghosts are at peace, where children are safe and parents love them, and where a blessed silence reigns in the darkness of our bedrooms as we drift off. For those of us who’ve had it, the memory of it can be a powerful draw. For those of us who haven’t, it can be a poignant, even cruel, chimera.
If anything, the surpassing magic of Frank LaLoggia’s Lady In White is its ability to effortlessly take us back to the liminal place and time before adulthood, with its realities and responsibilities. Indeed, to a time when the orange and black splendor of Halloween is more than enough, at least for this one special night when the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead are at least as permeable as the barriers between adulthood and childhood.
Photo credit: Blu-Ray