As the sun waned, I moved into the study and popped the Lady in White into the DVD player. After our Hostel experience, I wanted Zombos to watch a more subtle and traditional horror movie: one that treats murder and depravity in a respectable and nostalgic way.
It’s 1962 in Willowpoint Falls, and in the opening montage, director Frank LaLoggia introduces us to the small town during Halloween, and to the Scarlatti family’s eccentricities. Told as a flashback by the older Frankie Scarlatti (played by LaLoggia), we see the story lightly filtered through his memories as the sensitive young Frankie (played by the big eyed and big eared Lukas Haas) let’s two bully boys trick him into getting locked into the classroom’s foreboding cloakroom. All alone, and a stone’s throw away from a cemetery to boot, Frankie soon falls asleep on the top shelf of the closet, by the window.
An in-camera time lapse shot, done through the half-moon window of the cloakroom looking onto the cemetery, reminded me of a similar effect used in Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, where the sunlight rapidly fades to darkness as seen through the tomb’s window. Darkness is not a good thing when facing vampires or when locked in ominous cloakrooms on Halloween night, to be sure.
When 10 o’clock rolls around, it’s quiet, darker still, and also time for the murder mystery and ghost story to begin. Right off the bat I can identify with Frankie: he’s wearing a black cape and a Bela Lugosi mask. In a later scene in his bedroom, he also has the Aurora monster model kits displayed in all their magnificence.
That certainly brings back memories for yours truly. But I digress.
An eerie reenactment begins as Frankie wakes up from a bad dream involving his dead mother. A cold blast of air enters the room, along with the ghost of a little girl, laughing and playing. An interesting touch here is that this is not an atmospheric haunting, where events merely play over and over again, but the ghost of the little girl responds to Frankie’s presence in the room. She seems as startled to see him as he is to see her. But past events must still play out, and soon she is callously murdered by a shadowy adult figure.
Using a black screen process to create the transparent apparition of the girl, the scene is a harsh contrast to the lighter tone presented earlier in the movie, and sets up the next, more violent scene, where young Frankie finds himself in the unenviable position of sitting on the top shelf of the cloakroom when the real child-killer enters, looking for something that he had dropped into the floor grate after strangling the girl.
The killer realizes he is not alone and shines his flashlight onto the small black caped form, wearing the Bela Lugosi mask, sitting in the corner of the top shelf. Frankie tries to escape, but quickly has the life nearly choked out of him. An effective out of body experience has Frankie meet Melissa Ann, the ghost of the little girl so cruelly murdered long ago. He finds out she is trying to find her mom. Frankie is brought back to consciousness and he is soon delving deeper into this mystery for us.
True to form for the 1960s thematic, the school janitor, an African-American, is found drunk in the basement and is immediately blamed for the attempted murder of Frankie and the murders of 11 other children, including Melissa Ann, who was the first.
Reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, the movie maintains a good balance between the fanciful, Frankie’s adventure with the ghostly Melissa Ann against the blue-lit night scenes in the fairy tale stylized woods, and his coming of age and the painful loss of his mom. This theme of loss is borne also by the ghostly Melissa Ann who is looking for her mother, the ghost of her mother who is looking for Melissa Ann, and not to give too much away, one sister mourning the loss of another.
LaLoggia, who oddly enough grew up in an urban environment, creates a charming small town nostalgia and through the use of carefully controlled colors and lighting brings the hues of autumn inside to his interior scenes. The pharmacy window decorated for Halloween and the classroom scene where Frankie reads his monster story to the class is filled with shades of orange, yellow and the various colors of crisp autumn leaves.
In stark contrast, he uses reds and blues to denote the darker side of this story, and effectively uses dimmer panels to bring the light down or up to transition between important story points in the scene. The overall mood of the movie changes from charming to alarming and back to charming as the story unfolds to its incendiary ending atop the cliffs by the white cottage. LaLoggia’s simple, old-time, approach using in-camera effects combined with basic process shots build his story in an economical but creative way. Like a good ghost story, simple elements combine to create an ethereal dread, making Lady in White a memorable movie.