September brings the cooling winds that will soon strip the trees of their leaves and usher us into October, AKA: The Spooky Season. I don’t know about you, but when I think of this time of year, my thoughts drift toward the ghostly plane where restless spirits torment the living. Since it is A Haunting on Film Street month here at Nightmare of Film Street, we here at the Video Vault have decided to crossover into the netherworld to bring you a brilliantly haunting piece that begs the question, have you ever seen the Lady in White (1988)?
BACK OF THE BOX REVIEW
Director Frank LaLoggie partially based on a local legend from his hometown of Rochester, New York; the Lady in White, about a mother who eternally searches for her daughter. LaLoggie’s story, however, begins with Frankie, a student at Willowpoint Falls Elementary as he is locked in the cloakroom after school as a Halloween prank. It’s here that Frankie encounters the apparition of a local girl, Melissa Anne Montgomery, who had been discovered choked to death in the room 10 years prior. Frankie, with the ghostly assistance of Melissa and her mom, another lamenting spirit known as The Lady Dressed in White discovers that nine other kids have been slaughtered in the years since. Frankie races to find the killer before he becomes the most recent casualty.
CLASS OF ’62
Franklin J. “Frankie” Scarlatti played by Lukas Haas (Red Riding Hood, 2011) and his older brother Geno played by Jason Presson (Gremlins 2: The New Batch, 1990) know that something bad has happened at their school but they’re not sure what. Meanwhile, school mates Donald, played by Jared Rushton (Pet Semetary 2, 1992) and Louie, played by Gregory Levinson (The Black Cauldron, 1985) make Frankie’s life a living hell at school. Frankie soon discovers the most unlikely friend in Melissa Anne Montgomery, played by Joelle Jacobi in her only feature film performance, the ghost of a slain girl at Frankie’s school. Together with the dead girl’s vigilant dead mother, Anne Montgomery AKA The Lady in White, played by Karen Powell (Another Life, 2001) the trio attempt to solve the death of Melissa Anne.
Frankie and Geno’s father, Angelo J. Scarlatti played by the late Alex Rocco (The Entity, 1982), and family friend, Michael Phillip “Phil” Terragrossa, played by Len Cariou (1408, 2007) serve as both confidants and obstacles in Frankie’s search for the killer’s identity and Amanda Harper, played by the late Katherine Helmond (TV’s Who’s The Boss? 1984-1992) proves helpful despite a mysterious past. Rounding out the cast is Henry Harris (Dark Side of Genius, 1994) as Harold “Willy” Williams, the school janitor and suspect in the murders happening at the school, the late Renata Vanni (TV’s Beauty and the Beast, 1988) as Mama Assunta and the late Angelo Bertolini (Homer and Eddie, 1989) as Papa Charlie.
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FOLKLORE IN THE HEREAFTER
The Lady in White legend goes beyond the tales of the silver screen as her story goes back a century or two, though her exact origin is unknown. In fact, her story is told the world over with variations of her tragic story having roots in Brazil, Canada, Russia, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, Thailand and of course, the United States, just to name a few. While the locations may differ, the story is remarkably similar in most places.
As mentioned earlier, director LaLoggie’s inspiration for the Lady in White story comes from the real-life folk legend of the White Lady in Durand-Eastman Park in Rochester, New York, his hometown. The legend tells the 19th-century tale of the Lady in White who wanders the park, searching for the body of her daughter, who was murdered by a boyfriend or group of trouble makers, depending on who tells the story. The legend goes on to state that the White Lady either killed herself from sheer grief over the loss of her daughter or died alone of a broken heart. Either way, it’s clear where the inspiration for this tragic story comes from.
FOR THE LOVE OF THE LORE
The critical reception to the release of The Lady in White was mostly positive as the small-town aesthetic and gore-less scares seemed a refreshing break from what other horror films of the time were offering. The film’s focus on style, atmosphere, and story seemed to work its way into both the critical and audience collective psyche with a gleeful insidiousness that captured and held their attention and imaginations. However, a subplot involving 1960s racism seemed too weighty for the rest of the film to carry and it ultimately caused it to falter in that respect and the box office reflected that. The $5 million dollar budgeted ghost story only scared up a mere $1.7 million domestically.
That said, the film’s critical acclaim continued in the form of award nominations. Stars Lukas Haas and Katherine Helmond were both nominated for a Saturn Award in 1990 with Haas also getting a nomination (and winning) a Young Artist Award. The film was also nominated for the same Young Artist Award as well and was nominated for a similar award at Fantasporto, the Portuguese International Film Festival.
TREADING ON SENSITIVE GROUND
One of Lady in White’s major plot points is that which may prove to be the movie’s undoing. Child murder. In the 80s things weren’t as politically correct as they are today, but there were still certain topics that didn’t sit as well with audiences. Anything that portrayed children or a child in any serious peril made people uncomfortable and not in the good, “this is why we paid to see a horror movie” uncomfortable way.
It seems the murder of children in Lady in White didn’t play out the same way as say, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) did. Both use the same plot point but unlike Freddy Krueger’s dark past, the topic is shown so realistically it repulsed instead of intrigued. A Nightmare on Elm Street, while initially a serious horror film, still carried a fantastical approach to the sensitive topic of dead children whereas the Lady in White offers something stark and realistic, and perhaps that made people a bit too uneasy.
HAUNTING THE HOME VIDEO MARKET
That being said, Lady in White, like many of her contemporaries, found new life in its home video release. Clawing its way back from the dead the film was issued on VHS by Virgin Visi and later by Anchor Bay in October of 1993. There was also a laserdisc and DVD release from Elite Entertainment which came complete with a director’s cut (an entire extra 4 minutes) in March of 1998. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer reissued the same director’s cut on DVD in September of 2005 with a slew of special features including a director’s commentary and 36 minutes of deleted scenes and extra footage. In 2016, the film got the Scream Factory treatment with a Blu-ray release of the original theatrical cut, the previously issued director’s cut and a never-before-seen extended director’s cut running a whopping 127 minutes.
THAT’S A WRAP
In truth, the Lady in White is so steeped in atmospheric realism that it’s easy to see how some audiences might have taken exception to the subject matter, but keeping in mind the film’s origins and the tragic story of the titular character it’s hard to imagine the film being made in any other way. In fact, director LaLoggie’s detailed account of his version of the famous legend is a strong testament to the source material’s lasting legacy across the globe.
The Lady in White is a truly haunting watch that will draw you into its story without you even knowing it. Its elemental folk-horror sensibilities set up a great ghost story that stays remarkably true to its inspiration. Couple that with a powerhouse performance from a then 10-year-old Lukas Haas, and you can’t really go wrong with this haunted house gem.
Well, I certainly hope we have sold you on this one because it really is to die for, pardon the pun. That’s it for us here at the NOFS Video Vault. Remember to tip the staff on your way out and if you’re as insatiable about horror as we are, be sure to check out the Nightmare on Film Street Twitter, Subreddit, and Facebook Horror Movie Fiend page. There you’ll find all of your horror needs and probably some you didn’t even know you needed. Until next time my fellow fiends, stay creepy!