by JAMES BRIGHAM
It may seem odd to start a film review with a reference to an obscure, occult themed roleplaying game supplement, but bear with me. In the introduction to “Jail Break” (a superb scenario for the Unknown Armies RPG), Greg Stolze briefly writes on the impact of setting in regards to stories of weird scariness. He expounds the theory that bizarre tales and off-kilter individuals are more likely to be found in the isolated countryside rather than inside the bustling confines of cities. Removed from the watching eyes of the throngs and the preponderance of government oversight, the lone psychopath can stalk the night with relative impunity; the obsessed wannabe magician can conduct his rituals; the supernatural thing from beyond time and space can feed. It’s a horror writing technique that I find to be profoundly effective and one that is put to ample use in Lady in White, an equally unknown piece of pop culture. It’s an artistic gem of a ghost story based on actual folklore as well as the creator’s own childhood in upstate New York.
Writer/director Frank LaLoggia’s yarn of a writer recalling a childhood adventure is both nostalgic of small town living and steeped in terror as a result of such communities’ disconnection from the urban realm. LaLoggia effortlessly blends and contrasts scenes of idyllic, Normal Rockwellesque family and school gatherings with disturbing images of murder and specters. The effective use of this technique is comparable to Stephen King and Stephen Spielberg in the way it’s used to heighten either the viewer’s tranquility or fright. For example, early on in the film LaLoggia places the protagonist Frankie (played excellently by a young Lukas Haas) in a festive Halloween celebration at the boy’s grade school. The mood is lighthearted and easily humorous as Frankie’s peers wreak playful havoc and eat candy. Later on when Frankie ventures back into the school in search of a hat, however, that same setting is potently creepy with a lone jack-o-lantern still glowing ominously in the dimly lit classroom. My recent full viewing of the film actually made me recall a few clear memories of watching scenes from Lady in White on TV as a youth and having lasting fears of getting trapped in my school overnight afterward.
There are some genuinely serious scares in this modestly budgeted, PG-13 rated film, which proves that neither vast sums of money nor blood and gore are always necessary to creep the hell out of the audience. Shortly after the aforementioned scene, Frankie finds himself trapped in a coat closet as a result of some local bullies. Hours later, the boy has huddled up on a high shelf in the corner of the large closet, his vampire costume’s cloak pulled protectively around his body. In the wee hours of darkness, he watches as the apparition of a young girl comes softly singing through the wall. The special effects used to convey the ghost are representative of their time and don’t hold a candle to what modern audiences are used to. What can’t be argued is the effectiveness of the mise en scene to evoke uneasiness; the whole thing just feels so wrong and against the natural order – or at least the assumed natural order of the universe. If ghosts do exist in reality, I’d hazard to guess that the unnatural feeling of seeing one is partially captured by Lady in White. The eeriness only gets worse from that point.
And yet, conversely, we’re treated to numerous moments of quirky frivolity in the form of Frankie’s Italian household: the older brother alternates between tormenting Frankie and protecting him; his grandmother dotes after him and makes large family meals; the grandfather sneaks around smoking the cigarettes he’s supposedly given up, etc. Such periods offer the viewer a welcome respite from the turmoil in other scenes and feature easygoing interplay between the characters that makes you believe in their existence as a family unit; few of these moments come off as forced. Most notable of all the immediate family figures is Frankie’s father, Angelo (Alex Rocco), who is fiercely protective of his children while also displaying a nobility rarely seen in such movies. I’d go into how this emerges, but it would spoil one of Lady in White’s key plot developments. By assuming this, I also presume that you’ve never seen a movie before. Ever.<
That’s the unfortunate aspect of Lady in White; the mystery has a few surprises along the way, but ultimately they’re way too easy to figure out if you’ve had any exposure whatsoever to supernatural mysteries. Those small moments that exist in the, at times, cheesy climax are easy to digest though. The bulk of the story is commendable enough to recommend to even the most jaded film buff. Plus, any film that draws comparison to classic King adaptations (It or Stand By Me) and classic Spielberg (E.T., the Spielberg produced Poltergeist) deserves some recognition. Far removed from the glare of big city lights, tales such as these remind us that the small towns and suburbs that dot the American landscape can be the coziest of homes while also harboring the strangest of sagas.