Traversing the Treacherous Geography of Childhood in Lady in White
Frank LaLoggia’s forgotten classic from 1988, Lady in White, opens with a Stephen King-style novelist returning to his hometown of Willowpoint to visit a gravesite. From there we’re whisked back to 1962 when our protagonist Frankie Scarlatti was 10 years-old living with his widowed father and smart-aleck older brother. One fateful Halloween, a couple of childhood chums play a prank and lock poor Frankie in the coat closet at school where he must brave the night cold and alone. There he witnesses the mysterious ghost of a little girl act out her murder – and from there young Frankie becomes determined to help the ghost find peace, uncover the identity of the town’s serial child killer and solve the mystery of the town legend of The Lady of White (which is somehow connected to the killings).
The ghost hums the eerily nostalgic Bing Crosby tune, “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” – the killer’s favorite – and the song is used as a powerful motif throughout the film.
The town of Willowpoint is constructed of a bizarre geography both comfortingly familiar and strangely expressionistic. Its charming suburban streets seem to be nestled somewhere in the homey foothills of Upstate New York against a beautiful backdrop of fall colors and a lakefront. Yet the skyline of a great metropolis looms across the water, and there’s also the infamous Widow’s Peak, an impossible cliff side that seems ripped from the set of Dark Shadows, and the woods by the peak are haunted by dry-ice fog lingering just above the ground. We see this town, full of mystery and comfort, through the eyes of Frankie, who is clearly a stand-in for the writer/director awash in nostalgia for his own childhood and the spooky stories that once kept him up at night.
The classic Universal monster films of the 1930’s creep in the background of Willowpoint. Toy models of Dracula and Frankenstein adorn Frankie’s windowsill (often seen in the shadowy billow of the drapes caught up in a night breeze) and the aforementioned woods could very well be stand-ins for those from the original Wolfman. In addition to the nostalgia, LaLoggia amps up the atmosphere will all kinds of playful camera angles and noirish shadowing.
In 1988, Lukas Haas was fresh from his revelatory turn in the big hit Witness. As Frankie, the big-eared, big-eyed, nervous kid carries the film on his small shoulders and delivers one of the more endearing child performances of the decade. Yes, there are some dated cheesy special effects (though they never drown out the heart of the story nor the great atmosphere) and sometimes oppressive music score, but it adds to the overall charm of the film. And let’s not forget just how creepy some of the moments are after all of these years like the first scene of the little dead girl’s ghostly apparition floating through the air being carried away to the cliff side, or the harrowing scene where the humming of that famous song reveals to Frankie that his worst fear has come to fruition and the killer is someone he loves.
With its kid-centric nostalgia-tinted frames, one could view Lady in White as the ghost story version of another 80’s cult classic, A Christmas Story. Or when exploring the theme of solving the murder of a young girl, there are times (especially when the killer is revealed) that the film plays like Twin Peaks for children. There’s even a little dose of To Kill a Mockingbird style seriousness as a black man is wrongfully accused of the killings.
I can remember watching the film when I was a kid and loving it (the idea of a kid growing up to be a famous writer of thrilling tales no doubt spoke to the dream I had from my earliest days) – though it’s probably been twenty years since I last saw it. I recall my parents raving about it, too, as children of the 50’s and 60’s it no doubt brought back a flood of memories for them. A strange twist of fate brought me in possession of the 20th anniversary DVD. Watching it now in my early thirties, I’m astounded by how much of an influence it has subconsciously had on me over the years and in my own writing.
In many ways Lady in White bridged the gap between what I loved as a little kid (those perfect 80’s pop-corn thrill rides like Poltergeist and Raiders of the Lost Ark) and what I grew to obsess over as a preteen and teenager (the darkly nostalgic and psychological subtext-ridden fables of David Lynch like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks). When I was in fifth or sixth grade I wrote an epic and episodic soap opera about murder in a small town called Westmount – and I vividly recall a cliff side blatantly reminiscent of Widow’s Peak that played an intricate park in my darkly comic tale. Later as a young adult, I wrote a Lynchian novel called An Accidental House that was inspired by a real unsolved mystery involving a serial child strangler from my hometown of Burlington, New Jersey. I first learned of the mystery when I was just a kid and some friends and I discovered a scrapbook of newspaper clippings detailing the case in the library of our elementary school. I can’t help but think now with 20/20 hindsight that part of the reason I was drawn to the story was because in the back of my mind I was hoping to live out my own real-life version of Lady in White.
Writer/director Frank LaLoggia hasn’t done anything since this film. Though quietly whispered about in tight cultish circles, one has to wonder if the film’s initial commercial failure prevented LaLoggia from ever wanting to make another movie. Is he out there wallowing in regret? In one heartfelt scene where Frankie imagines himself dying and his spirit flying over his hometown, he sees his brother going through his things and finding the love letter he never sent to his school-age crush, Mary Ellen. “Oh why did I never send it?!” the boy laments. Is LaLoggia saying similar things now about never making another film?
Or is he content? Was Lady in White his love letter already sent? Is it all he ever wanted to say?
Which brings us back to the age-old question…
Did you ever see a dream walking?
Well, I did…but only in the movies.
Written by David H. Schleicher
Here I’d like to start a thread where readers share their favorite films from childhood (scary or otherwise) that they still watch today and feel have stood the test of time.
So go on with your nostalgic selves…
With the release of Proqueefeus this year, I’ve made no bones about my childhood love for that series. Instead of Cowboys vs. Indians or Cops vs. Robbers, I convinced the kids in my neighborhood to play Alien vs. Predator (after the comic books, long before the movies).
But Aliens was always one horse in my childhood quadriga: Aliens / Terminator / Predator / RoboCop. I’ll buy that for a dollar!
Indiana Jones 3 was what made me a WW2 nerd, and might have seen it over a few hundred times by now (mostly getting clues for the LucasArts PC adventure game.)
Just about every Arnie movie I was down for. Commando, Red Heat, Kindergarten Cop, Total Recall ……………….. Twins ………………
We grew up watching the same movies, man…though I was also watching all of the Universal horror films and other scary movies through the ages…not just the 80’s craptaculars of action, sci-fi and horror 🙂
Man…Twins! I remember seeing that in the theaters and thinking it was the funniest thing ever!
Great review, especially the end. Makes me want to see it again. John
John – I had a hunch you’d be a fan of this film…you should definitely watch it again!
For me it’s always been The Exorcist. It had a late release in India in the late 80s. The theater made a public dare — “Watch The Exorcist all alone and walk away dead, or walk away with a car.”
I was willing to take the dare but as a kid was obviously denied entry to the theaters. So I rented a VHS instead and watched it with a friend. And man was I happy I was a kid. It gave me sleepless nights. The Exorcist had a re-re-release a coupla years later and this time I was old (and man) enough to watch it with a packed audience. It happened again–I had sleepless nights.
I haven’t revisited it after that. Out of fear of a different kind. Fear that it might lose the horrific charm it had over me and dilute the nostalgia I hold for it. But now that you’ve revisited one of your personal horror classics, it prods me to do the same with The Exorcist.
In the meanwhile, since I haven’t seen Lady in White yet, I’ll catch up with that as well.
Here’s another strange (or call it eerie) coincidence/jinx about your review David. I was penning a poem titled “My Dreams Are Sleeping” last night. And today morning, I read your review that talks about “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” I hadn’t heard about this Bing Crosby song before. It goes well with my train of thoughts on dreams and dreaming, right now. If interested, I can mail it to you 🙂
Prakash – what an awesome “movie-going” story! This will probably say a lot about me as a person…but to me The Exorcist was always great fun…and some friends and I watched it recently as part of a horror movie fest – and we couldn’t stop laughing (in good ways). It was a great film for sure.
And, yes – I’d love to read this poem! It’s a small world, my friend.
It indeed is a small world. Frank LaLoggia honored The Spin with his presence. I’m glad for you David and glad that good work doesn’t go unnoticed 🙂
And what a journey the director has been through. Very thoughtful of him to share his cathartic transformation with us.
“Though quietly whispered about in tight cultish circles, one has to wonder if the film’s initial commercial failure prevented LaLoggia from ever wanting to make another movie. Is he out there wallowing in regret?… Or is he content? Was Lady in White his love letter already sent? Is it all he ever wanted to say?”
Oh, that it were all that simple. What a blessing that would be. The truth is that I spent many years attempting to get a project off the ground following LADY that sadly, never happened. The myth that passion and a modicum of talent sprinkled with perseverance and hard work will ultimately deliver one’s dreams is alas, just that: a myth. Eventually, the primordial urge to survive takes over, (if one doesn’t succumb to all of the pain and disappointment) and you crawl your way back to wanting to breathe another breath, dragging your bloodied carcass behind you. Doing that was no easy task. It took me to another continent…another existence entirely and one that has, up until now, nurtured me and somewhat salved the wounds. At one point, it was widely rumored that I had died. In a philosophical sense, at least, the rumor proved to be quite true. The handful of people that witnessed my spiritual and
almost physical demise and cared enough to fiercely clench me in their arms, refusing to let me go, would even today tell you that they held little hope. Most difficult to convince was myself. But, to quote Sondheim’s defiant paean to survival: ”I’m Still Here.” Or am I? To the extent that the same guy who created LADY IN WHITE is…maybe just a little of him remains. He can be found at the following: miromiranda.com
Frank – I’m honored that you found my little piece of the blogosphere and posted a reply. I never thought the writer/director of the film I’m writing about would stumble upon my post! As I remarked earlier to my friend Prakash – it’s a small world.
I’m glad to hear you are still working in the creative space – and good luck with the new film. It’s quite the departure it seems (at least from Lady in White). It’s funny where the years will take us. Thanks for the update on your works and the snippets of wisdom. Again, I’m truly honored that you stopped by to share your thoughts.
What a tremendous honor to David and THE SCHLEICHER SPIN to have Frank LaLoggia comment here!! And what a great essay from David, which ends with those telling questions!! That they now have thorough answers is one of the greatest joys of blogging.
A great day here in these hollowed halls!!!
Must’ve been a Freudian slip – hollow – as in a dark hollow – works well in this context, too 🙂
[…] Congratulations to David Schleicher!!! Filmmaker/writer Frank LaLoggia placed a lengthy comment under David’s review of his 1988 horror film The Lady in White at The Schleicher Spin. David posed some questions to LaLoggia, and sure enough the famed director responded: https://theschleicherspin.com/2012/12/08/did-you-ever-see-a-dream-walking/ […]
Excellent piece, David. You may have already seen it, but I posted an hour-long audio interview with Frank at my site (www.AnywhereButHollywood.com).
Among the film’s many subtle contributions to post-80s genre film (certainly, it was an influence on The Sixth Sense, for example), there was Frank Darabont’s use of “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking” in The Green Mile. Darabont must be a fan as well – Lady certainly seems to share his sense of warmth and nostalgia, as well as his affinity for “daylight horror”.
Good points, I would say it influenced The Lovely Bones as well.
Here’s the link to the interview, if you’re interested:
Thanks, Adam, for stopping by and leaving the link to the interview!