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