Lady in White (1988)

14 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: **1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

WARNING: This review is spoiler-heavy. Details about the film’s ending (and the revealed identity of the serial killer that haunts this horror film) are mentioned. Despite the Verdict of what seems to be a mixed review, I recommend you check out the film “Lady in White” and get back to this review. (Be advised—this is a negative but affectionate review.)

OK, I’m probably not coming off as “affectionate” in this review when I say that “Lady in White” is “weird.” But I don’t really mind weirdness in horror films featuring ghosts, and so “Lady in White” should delight me. And for the most part, I was delighted. But the more I thought about it, the more I keep thinking about what doesn’t belong and what should be further developed. The result is an intriguing but uneven ghost story.

What do I mean by “weird?” Well, I’m just going by the overall atmosphere of the film, which is almost too well-mannered for its own good. For an old-fashioned ghost story set in the early-1960s, takes place in a small town, and is told from a child’s point-of-view, “Lady in White” is crafted in such a way that it seems all too polite despite its grim subject matter. The result is sometimes interesting, other times uncomfortable. It just makes the darker aspects of it seem all too dark, which I guess is the point, but we have to go through a lot of overly mannered scenes that look like a Norman Rockwell painting coming to life and all of a sudden, there’s blood in certain spots.

Another example of its weirdness is how it sometimes feels like a family sitcom. There are a lot of comic relief scenes with the young protagonist’s Italian grandparents who bicker all the time and deliver a lot of goofy moments. Even early in the film, when no relief is needed, the grandfather is caught smoking and then his pants catch fire. What kind of movie is this supposed to be again?

“Lady in White” follows Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas), an odd, imaginative little boy who lives with his Italian-American father (Alex Rocco), older brother (Jason Presson), and the aforementioned comic-relief grandparents (Renata Vanni and Angelo Bertolini) in an ordinary town with ordinary people in 1962. On Halloween, a couple of Frankie’s classmates trick him and lock in the school cloakroom for the night. When no one comes to rescue him, Frankie is stuck in there for hours in the dark. Then, something strange happens. He sees the ghostly image of a little girl reenacting her own murder in that very room.

That’s one of the interesting things about this ghost story. Apparently, ghosts are forced to “haunt” by “reliving” their own murders, presumably because there’s nothing else they can do, since they died a tragic, violent death. They apparently have to do that because that’s all they can do until justice is delivered to whoever wronged them. That would explain why Frankie sees the ghost girl reenact her own murder. Another interesting element is that the killer is never seen in these reenactments (so the girl is carried away by an invisible force), because the killer is still alive and on the loose.

After Frankie sees the ghost, the cloakroom is then visited by a mysterious stranger who is very much alive and able to harm Frankie. Frankie is nearly strangled to death by the man, presumably the killer. Frankie survives, but sees more visions of the ghost girl and even talks to her sometimes. She wants him to find her mother and find out who her killer is.

So, Frankie finds a few clues to help him uncover the true identity of the serial killer that has also killed many other children, including the child of a grieving woman who has lost all sense of reason since her loss. A black janitor is accused, but Frankie feels that it wasn’t him, so he continues to search. Soon enough, his brother sees the ghost and he is able to help out at a crucial point in the movie. Meanwhile, there are a few more points in the mystery, which includes a ghostly Lady in White who haunts a cottage near some cliffs, and a reclusive woman named Amanda (Katherine Helmond) who may or may not have connections with the murdered girl.

The movie does a good job in telling the story from Frankie’s perspective and there are moments that ring true—while some moments feel fantastic in a playful sort of way, others are more disturbing for the boy, making it somewhat of a coming-of-age story in a sense. It helps that Frankie is very bright (and very odd, like a lot of young kids are) and isn’t just running around screaming—he’s given something specific to do, and he sees it to the melodramatic payoff in which all bets are off and his life is in danger.

Speaking of which, the final 20 minutes or so of “Lady in White” is when it becomes a more traditional horror film, when the film is suddenly afraid of being too polite and actually becomes something even more alarming, intentionally so. Suddenly, everything has become very real and very dangerous, with a very real killer. At first, I didn’t really know how to respond to this, as it seems like the ending to a slasher film. But the more I thought about everything that was built up before, the more I thought about how much I got to know Frankie and his family enough for it to mean something for me when the truly scarier occurrences appear. That’s actually a good type of horror movie—letting us know the characters so that we feel for them when they’re in peril.

But there is one major problem here (and this is where spoilers come in)—this whole film is all about Frankie trying to piece together this puzzle and find out the killer’s identity, and yet to me, it seemed all too obvious who the killer would turn out to be. Why? Because after that deadly encounter in the cloakroom, we see a closeup of a man we haven’t seen yet in the movie—a man with a guilty and remorseful look on his face. That man turns out to be Phil (Len Cariou), who is a friend of the family who sometimes teaches Frankie archery. It’s that shot that really lets the movie down because I could tell right away that something was not quite right with this man. Maybe if we met him before, and had either the father or Frankie interact with him early in the movie, that shot would fool us then, because it would mean anything. But no—he’s the killer. I knew it, I was waiting impatiently for the characters to figure it out, and surely enough, Frankie finds himself in a situation where he finds out too late and he’s probably doomed.

Little problems with the film include an overdone subplot involving racism when it comes to the conviction of the black janitor and the grieving white woman—I can tell there’s some sort of social commentary trying to be said here, but it’s in a different movie. And the subplot involving Amanda seems superfluous—take her out of the story and you wouldn’t miss a thing. Even her “revelation” in the final act seems very forced. Oh, and I almost forgot the narration and the prologue. Let me explain—there’s a prologue that shows an older Frankie, a successful writer who recalls the incidents with the ghosts. He stands by a gravestone and decides to tell his cab driver a story, which makes the film into a flashback. Not only is the narration sound overblown and overly cryptic, but this prologue doesn’t work for two reasons—1) it removes all suspense because we all know that Frankie isn’t going to die in this story, and 2) there’s no epilogue. I’m not even kidding—there’s no epilogue. It just ends with the killer finally meets his end at a cliff, the ghosts of the girl and her mother are reunited (even before the killer finally dies—wait, what?), Frankie is reunited with his father and brother, the camera pulls back from the cliff as it starts to snow (symbolism?)…and that’s it. There’s not even any sort of narration to close us out. I don’t care what explanation you give me; that is just clumsy.

I give “Lady in White” credit for making ghosts into sympathetic figures and getting quite a few things right in the non-horror aspects, particularly involving Frankie and the relationships with his family members, and there are a few good scares in the story without being the main focus for the most part. But the parts that don’t work are a little too distracting for me to give it another watch. However, I say this is an “affectionate” review because even though it didn’t quite work for me, I can see other people getting into this movie despite those scenes.

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