Lady in White (1988)

NOT QUITE THE WHITE STUFF: SCREAM FACTORY'S THE LADY IN WHITE

With the frequency with which Hollywood productions change or fall apart, the history of the industry is littered with “what ifs” and “almosts.” We’ll never get to see what would’ve happened had Alejandro Jodorowsky directed Dune; we’ll probably never see the result of Orson Welles filming Charles Williams’ Dead Calm. On the other hand, there are productions which do see it to fruition that are so out of the ordinary for their creators, or so far removed from any other films out there, that they function as the fulfillment of certain what-if scenarios without even involving any of the parties in question. Sleepaway Camp is, undeniably, what would’ve happened if David Lynch ever made a slasher. Hausu is what would’ve happened had Tim Burton made Beetlejuice in collaboration with Toho.  And Lady in White? Lady in White is what would’ve happened if Walt Disney, Tommy Wiseau, and a coked-out 42nd Street speed freak had made… well, Lady in White, out now on Blu-Ray September 27th from Scream Factory.

In 1962, precocious youngster Frank Scarlatii gets locked in the school coat closet as the result of a prank pulled by two of the town bullies. That night, he witnesses the ghost of a little girl named Melissa forced to reenact her own murder, strangled to death by an unseen phantom. Moments later, the flesh-and-blood killer enters the room, and, seeing Frank, attempts to murder him, too. Frank survives the attack, but, soon after, finds himself haunted by visions of Melissa, who beckons him to find “her”—the titular Lady in White, a phantom said to haunt a cabin near some seaside cliffs. Driven by Melissa—and the knee-jerk arrest of a black janitor whom Frankie knows to be innocent—the boy sets out to solve the girl’s murder, in the process uncovering shady secrets buried in his town’s past.

Lady in White has a lot of promise in way of its’ plot, actors (including the criminally underappreciated Alex Rocco), cinematography, and special effects. It’s garnered a nice cult following for itself over the years, and it’s this cult for whom Scream Factory has so lovingly and painstakingly put together this special edition release. However, this is a nostalgia trip probably best taken by those who’ve already bought the ticket once before. For other horror fans, the plug gets pulled pretty early on, and the rest of the movie is a breakneck trip right down the drain.

Lady suffers tremendously from a script that never decides what sort of movie it wants to be, nor does it ever settle on what the rules of its’ own universe are. Early in the film, we’re introduced to two female characters implied to be love interests for Frank and his widowed dad: A frizzy-haired little girl and Frank’s teacher, respectively. A sequence near the beginning of the movie has Frank reading a short story he wrote to his class; while he reads, the camera cuts repeatedly to the two bullies whose prank will set the events of the movie in motion. It makes sense, narratively and stylistically. Frank is a creative, likable little boy, and the two bullies can’t stand that he’s good at something that gets him positive attention. However, in between the cuts to the bullies, the camera also jumps to the frizzy haired girl, smiling serenely and visibly becoming increasingly more enamored of Frank. It would be a nice way to set up a love interest for Frank, one who will perhaps even play a major role in the events to follow: Though she’s upset by the horror elements of Frank’s story, she’s also clearly fascinated by them, in that peculiar way that children (and future horror movie fans) are drawn to expose themselves to the very things that terrify them.  However, after this scene, the little girl never receives anything like the attention given to her in this sequence. In fact, she essentially disappears from the film altogether. Similarly, there’s a scene just before the prank in which Frank helps his teacher out to her car and she hits on his dad by proxy, encouraging Frank to get his dad to call her. Once again, it’s a plot thread that goes nowhere, and doesn’t even have the excuse as a character building scene: The focus is on the teacher, whom we’ll ever only see featured in one more scene, and only then dancing during a class party.

Similarly, the film can never make up its’ mind about its’ own rules. Quite simply, supernatural movies need to have an internal logic, even if the audience is never quite sure what that logic is. Lady so readily breaks its’ own apparent rules that it’ll cause even the most casual of plot critics’ heads to explode. Take, for example, Melissa’s behavior. We first see the ghost girl in the school coatroom, reliving her death. Later, she appears to Frank in his bedroom at home. All well and good—the school is where she died, and Frank did have a special experience with her, so it’s not without the realm of established ghost lore that she might be connected to him in some way. Now, consider that the film also revolves around a secondary ghost—the titular Lady in White, who, as anyone familiar with the folktale the movie is based on knows, is Melissa’s distraught mother, seeking to reunite with her daughter in the afterlife. The Lady died at the cliffs behind her house, and—again, keeping with a lore the audience would be familiar with—haunts that house and those cliffs. Now look at a sequence that occurs about midway through the film. As the hour of Melissa’s death nears, her ghost is drawn back to the coat room to relive it yet again. Only, as we’ll see, Melissa didn’t die in the coat room—she survived her strangling there, and in fact was thrown to her death… from the very cliffs where her mother died. If, in the world of Lady in White, ghosts are attached to their death place, why aren’t Melissa and her mother already reunited? Why does Melissa’s specter manifest in the coat room—where she was simply assaulted, not killed—and not by the cliffs? Can she not rest until her murderer is brought to justice? If not, why don’t the killer’s other dozen victims also appear in the coatroom—where, it’s implied, the killer brought all of them? Further, if Melissa’s motivation is justice, a key moment of the climax falls apart. If it were simply a matter of someone learning her killer’s identity, that happens a good fifteen minutes before the end of the movie, when two separate characters figure it out, one of whom alerts the whole town and arranges a posse. Yet Melissa and the Lady don’t share their reunion until the killer has been thrown from the cliffs, after which we witness the two ghosts’ ascension into Heaven. This could make sense, if Melissa’s goal was vengeance. Yet, seconds after the ghosts vanish, we learn that the killer is still alive, hanging from a tree branch on the cliffside.  The only apparent rules governing this universe are narrative convenience.

 The same goes for the film’s forced racial angle, which is shoe-horned in slightly less sloppily than the jettisoned romance subplots, but which becomes all the more glaring for the casual manner in which such a heavy topic is addressed. The film wants to expose negative treatment of blacks even in more liberal communities (notably, the vast majority of the town’s residents are Italian, an ethnicity that, in the 1960s, had only recently achieved “white” status after decades of mistreatment). However, beyond the perfunctory arrest of the school’s janitor, and one or two characters’ casual racism, the town depicted in the film is far more progressive than most immigrant enclaves of the time. The town’s black families are even depicted attending church with the main characters, and while they’re relegated to the back row, the seating choice could just as easily be motivated by wanting to stay out of the spotlight in the wake of a murder attributed to their community. Lady in White wants to hold a magnifying glass up to the white society of the era and say, “for all of your platitudes and veneer of civility, you still treat other human beings as trash.” Yet the black characters in the film are, on the whole, treated too well by the rest of the city for the message to carry any gravity. Even the janitor’s arrest doesn’t seem wholly motivated by race, if at all—he was found blackout drunk in the same small building where a young boy was almost strangled to death. Few people of any race would be able to avoid suspicion in those circumstances. In fact, you could easily cast a white actor as the janitor, snip out one or two racial remarks, and the script wouldn’t change at all. Even the murder of a black character near the film’s end is depicted as an act of vigilante justice, with no indication that the outcome wouldn’t be the same if the individual were another race. It isn’t an instance of a black man arbitrarily accused of crime being lynched by a racist mob—it’s a bereaved parent going off the deep end and shooting an alleged child molester, something that’s happened in the real world without any racial motivation.

The vigilante sequence brings me to the second, and perhaps more glaring, of the movie’s flaws: a radically inconsistent tone. Done well, frequent and unnerving tone shifts can be effective, especially in a horror movie. Some of the classics of the genre—most notably Psycho— start out as another kind of film before either slowly or abruptly taking a wrong turn into terror. In order to work, though, those shifts have to be organic, and have a certain kind of consistency to them. Lady in White changes its’ tone so frequently, and so sloppily, that it oftentimes seems that we’re watching the result of some kind of experiment gone wrong. It’s as though two writers and directors were given the same basic premise and cast of characters, shot two different movies, and then the best takes from each were hastily edited together into a single film. Parts of Lady—in both tone and aesthetics—recall Disney’s efforts to appeal to more mature audiences during the era, with a few callbacks to The Watcher in the Woods and Something Wicked This Way Comes. They achieve that perfect mixture of adult wistfulness, youthful exuberance, and polished graininess that make Woods and Wicked still so effective today. It would be easy to watch certain scenes of the movie and come away thinking that it was geared towards families with older kids: something scary, but not too scary, with lots of cool special effects and a cast designed to appeal to both parents and children alike.

Then, there’ the rest of the movie.

With its’ gruesome murders, pedophilia subtext (culminating in a scene in which an adult man forces himself not to kiss a little boy), and generally off the wall vileness (the aforementioned vigilante scene has the murdered man’s screaming wife getting splattered with his blood as his children watch him die), you could almost mistake parts of Lady in White as outtakes from a particularly well-funded exploitation flick. Again, this could have worked—it’d be a pretty jarring experience for audiences to go into a film expecting a light ghost story and walk away from a grindhouse flick. The problem is that the shifts in tone are seemingly arbitrary, with no narrative rhyme or reason for their occurrence. Take for example two sequences that come late in the film and appear virtually back to back: A group of boys sneak into an abandoned house, where they unintentionally set loose a baby alligator that chases them around in a slapstick sequence straight out of The Goonies. Immediately after, we play witness to a little girl screaming for her mother while she’s thrown to her death from a cliff, the camera following her body all the way down to its’ fatal impact on the rocks below. This is the format the movie takes, gliding between nostalgia and nihilism up until its’ Rockwellian ending, which sees an impromptu snowstorm blanketing the town in the aftermath of a serial killer’s public suicide. Sentimentality, y’all.

Lady was clearly a labor of love for director Frank LaLoggia, so there’s a particular degree of discomfort in dissecting the movie’s flaws so savagely. Part of that comes from my own sense of disappointment: The film is so severely less than the sum of its’ parts, it’s infuriating. On paper, the premise is spooky, and the film boasts some incredible cinematography and a truly beautiful color palette, especially in the many scenes set in Frank’s classroom at sunset, which demonstrate a profound grasp of how to effectively use (or replicate) natural light. Those scenes look like how sunset felt as a little kid at the end of a long day at school, and they deserve a better film to feature them. Yet none of it comes off, and the result is an absolute mess. Even Scream Factory seems to have grasped that this isn’t quite up to their normal caliber of releases: While the restoration job is, as always, top notch, the special features are essentially a showcase for LaLgoggia to get a final say on his pet project, with the director/writer representing the only person involved with the film to take part. Though the set is two discs, each disc simply contains different versions of the film, including the theatrical cut (which somewhat rehabs the film’s tonal problems by removing several incongruously comic sequences), the director’s cut (which I watched for this review), and an “extended director’s cut” that adds even more deleted footage.

Lady has accumulated several fans over the years, and indeed Scream’s release of the movie on Blu-Ray was at least partially motivated by their vocal demand for a definitive edition of the film. For those folks, their prayers have been answered. The same for anyone who really, really wants to see that Disney/Wiseau/coke-binge production. For casual horror fans, though, this is one flick that can go over the cliffs.

Preston Fassel