Ghost stories are usually driven by the poltergeist at the core of the narrative. Lady In White offers a novel change of pace, offering a bittersweet coming-of-age tale that just happens to have a ghost story as one of its components. Like Frank LaLoggia’s prior film, Fear No Evil, this one covers a lot of territory under the banner of genre filmmaking and delivers it all in a singular, generously overstuffed style.
A framing/narration device that has a novelist returning to his old hometown sets up the main narrative for Lady In White, which is set in 1962. Frankie (Lukas Haas) is a horror-besotted young kid from a loving Italian-American family headed by patriarch Angelo (Alex Rocco). When a couple of pranksters lock Frankie in a coat closet on Halloween, he finds himself visited by Melissa Anne (Joelle Jacob), the ghost of a murdered little girl, and her real-life killer. Frankie survives the attack and the town frets over who his mystery assailant is as he finds himself visited again by the ghost. His attempts to help her lead to a bigger mystery that revolves around a string of unsolved child murders and the titular legend.
As the above synopsis suggests, Lady In White is brimming with characters and storylines – and writer/director LaLoggia reveals in the “muchness” of it all. There are long breaks between the spooky, plot-driven horror elements, with family oriented material that is both dramatic and comedic plus an anti-racism subplot that some critics consider one element too many in an already generously loaded storyline.
However, if you’re willing to accept Lady In White as more than just a horror film, it’s filled with rewards for the patient viewer. LaLoggia directs the tale with great confidence, utilizing lush photography from Russell Carpenter that sets a dreamy, nostalgic ambiance and a self-composed orchestral score that slots in between the approaches of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. When it’s time to do a scary setpiece, the results are oft-dazzling: a fantasy sequence where Frankie sees his life passing before his eyes after his attack is stunning stuff. There’s even some flashy old-school optical FX thrown into the mix in the aforementioned scene and the finale.
It’s also worth noting that LaLoggia’s dramatically inclined approach to genre works because he gets quality performances from a well-chosen cast. Haas proves he was one of the finest child actors of his time here, hitting all the right dramatic and comic notes as he sells the viewer on the young hero’s mix of wide-eyed innocence and curiosity. Rocco also excels here: usually cast as a heavy or comic figure, he digs into the subtleties of a rare dramatic role and brings a lot of gravitas to the film.
Even better, the backing cast is full of ace character actors like Bruce Kirby and Sydney Lassick. Look out for Len Cariou in an important role as Angelo’s adopted brother and Katherine Helmond, who is fantastic in a cast-against type dramatic role as a mysterious character who plays a brief but pivotal role in the third act.
Simply put, LaLoggia’s dramatic approach gives texture and tonal variety to what could have been another ghost story. Lady In White is thus worth seeking out for the horror fan whose interests extend beyond genre purism.