October is Horror Movie month, where we let down our hair and celebrate all things macabre and scary! Not that we don’t during the rest of the year, but still… HORROR MOVIES! People who don’t like horror are encouraged to check back November 1st for less bloody and/or disturbing films. For everyone else, let’s put on our galoshes and WADE INTO THE MIRE!
Hello and welcome to Hell Is Other People* week here at Late to the Theater! This week’s selections are all about the biggest threat facing modern mankind – other people. All this week’s selections take place in Suburbia, and while they might feature supernatural flourishes, people tend to be the at the root of the problem. So throw some plastic flamingos on your lawn and turn up the music; we’re going to get a visit from the concerned people at our HOA**!
Read on for today’s entry, 1988 Family Horror movie, Lady In White.
Note: for the sake of more expansive discussion, today’s post will include spoilers.
I saw Lady in White at a slumber party when it first came out on VHS. I was about 9, and have spent the last almost-thirty years thinking this movie was rated PG and marveling at how batshit random the MPAA rating system is. It’s considered a ‘family horror’ movie, which I have never really heard of. Having consulted IMDB just now, I find that it is, in fact, rated R.
AS WELL IT SHOULD BE.
The Plot: The year is 1962. Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is 10 years old and loving life on All Hallow’s Eve in a small, picturesque town just 25 miles from Manhattan. Unfortunately for Frankie, Some jerks trap him in the cloak room after school as a cruel prank, where he’ll be stuck until Monday if no one comes looking for him. But he soon discovers being locked in a cloakroom for two days is the least of his problems: just as the church bells ring out 10 o’clock, he hears giggling, and a little girl appears in the cloakroom. She passes easily through the locked door– because she is a ghost.
The little ghost girl sees Frankie, becomes scared, and begins pleading for her invisible companion to take her home, that she wants her Mommy and is scared. The unseen companion (who is missing from the event because he isn’t dead) then begins dragging her around by her hair, beating her, and then proceeds to strangle her while she screams for her Mommy. Her screams haunt me still. Poor little Frankie witnesses all this. The invisible companion then lifts the little girl’s prone body and carries her out. Frankie is safe…
… until someone else enters the cloakroom. A tall figure with a flashlight opens the door and heads inside, and begins searching inside a heating grate for something that fell down there during the struggle. Frankie moves, he’s spotted, and the man drags him down off the shelf and strangles him unconscious.
It’s fun for the whole family!
As he ascends heavenward and stares into a burning sun, events from Frankie’s past, present, and future flashe before his eyes: he relives his mother’s funeral, witnesses his father making panicked phone calls looking for him, and sees his brother going through his things, trying to make sense of the loss. Frankie then reawakens to find his father administering CPR.
It turns out that Frankie was almost the victim of an unknown child killer who has been operating in the town for the last ten years. While reading the paper he sees a photo of the little girl ghost, recognizes her, and begins to solve both her murder and the mystery of the Lady In White, a ghost that has been seen roaming the town’s sea cliffs at night.
“You Know, This Movie Is Upsetting, But I Think We Can Go Even Farther…”
And because the themes of child murder weren’t bad enough, there is a sub-plot involving racism. After Frankie is found, the police find that the only person in the school that night was the Black janitor, who is drunk and watching TV in the basement. The janitor is arrested and blamed for the crimes because the local sheriff finds him to be a convenient scapegoat. Most of the townspeople are content with that, but Frankie’s dad isn’t, and is one of the few people who shows kindness to the janitor’s family and insists that the janitor is innocent. Frankie’s Dad is basically super-dad, but he’s played so well by Alex Rocco that it works.
The racism angle is an interesting layer to an already complicated movie, and although it’s fascinating, it should have gotten more screen time or less–the resultant inclusion of it feels odd and tacked on. There’s a scene where a mother whose child was one of the victims approaches the janitor’s wife in church (note that the Black families are sitting in the back of the church) and spews hate at her, as the mother believes the janitor is guilty. The Black family is present, but they barely have any lines and are basically there to depict the flip side of idyllic, small town life. That said, Rose Weaver, as the janitor’s wife, puts in a restrained but powerful performance as she attempts to keep her family’s life together, even after her husband is killed by that same aforementioned mother. However, she still functions as a martyr and isn’t given much else to do storywise.
Mamma Mia, And Other Tropes!
To lighten the mood, we have Frankie’s grandparents, whose entire lives seem to have been spent carefully crafting their version of the Italian Old People Stereotype. They swear, they call to saints, they wave their hands, roll their eyes, squabble, and basically run the household while Frankie is out gallivanting and solving mysteries. Grandpa’s prohibition from smoking by the fearsome Grandma is a recurring theme.
But Seriously…The Child Murder
As the mystery unravels, we find that Frankie only witnessed half of Melissa’s murder. Every night at ten o’clock, Melissa must reenact her murder, and so Frankie follows her prone form as it drifts through the town, carried by her invisible murderer, up to the sea cliffs.
Frankie watches her final moments, in which she wakes up long enough to realize where she is and what is about to happen. She screams and tries to fight, kicking and flailing, and I am here to tell you that it is upsetting, folks. I’ve watched a lot, lot of horror films, read books and comics and even visited some supposedly haunted sites, but that sound of that little girl screaming has always stuck with me. It didn’t leave an impression, it left a smoking brand on my brain. Half the reason I lift weights, learn self-defense, and practice an almost paranoiac level of situational awareness is because of this scene. I didn’t just watch it, I lived it.
Frankie witnesses another large piece of the puzzle: the identity of the mysterious Lady in White. It was Melissa’s mother, who runs in her nightclothes (and I don’t even care that she hangs around her house at night in diaphanous robes, let her be her) to the edge of the cliff, sees the little body down on the rocks below, has a mental breakdown, and then throws herself into the pounding surf.
Frankie too is left severely messed up, but he’s now even more determined to solve the mystery and reunite Melissa with her ghostly mother.
And The Murderer Is…
Surprise! It was kindly old ‘Uncle’ Phil, Frankie’s father’s best friend. Frankie finds a ring in the exhaust duct, and Frankie’s big brother Geno manages to identify its owner. But it might be too late for Frankie, who has gone with Creepy Uncle Phil for archery practice. This whole scene is nightmarish for lots of reasons, one of which is this moment:
Frankie begins to absently hum the song, ‘Did You Ever See a Dream Walking,’ one which Melissa has often sung, and Phil absently begins to sing along. Frankie realizes that Phil is the murderer, and Creepy Uncle Phil becomes Scary Psycho Phil as he tries to get into the locked car, screaming and breaking the windows.
Then follows a rather harrowing chase sequence in which ‘Kindly Uncle Phil’ tries to reason with Frankie, informing him he means him no harm (despite bringing his archery equipment), and that he totally wouldn’t have killed Frankie if he’d recognized him– all the while utterly failing to deny that he murdered nine other children in the same cloakroom. Understandably, this wins him no points with Frankie.
Frankie awakens in Melissa’s old house, tended by her reclusive aunt in a room full of candles. Naturally Phil finds him, the candles are knocked over and the house catches fire. Phil grabs Frankie and carries him out of the house… only to head straight to the seacliffs. They struggle, and Frankie’s dad arrives in time to save the day. Phil goes over the cliff and catches a branch, but chooses to kill himself rather than life with his shameful actions.
Lady in White is really a fascinating movie. It’s beautifully photographed (the DP would go on to win an Oscar for Titanic), the performances are nuanced, and the characterizations and plot are delightfully compact. It’s definitely melodrama and the effects are almost hilariously dated, but there’s still something darkly charming about it, for all its weirdness. I feel that modern audiences would find it either too weird or not weird enough for a horror movie; if I had to liken it to a modern film, I would compare it to The Lovely Bones, although I hated The Lovely Bones. Lady in White at least knew that it was a horror movie dealing with very difficult subject matter, and struggles at times to balance that horror with the lighter moments of family or comedy.
So that was the Lady in White! I hope you enjoyed our first entry of 2016’s Horror Movie Month, and that you’ll join us again on Wednesday for our second entry, Poltergeist.
Have a great rest of your day!
Have you ever seen Lady in White or another movie that upset you more than you thought it would?
*Fun fact: This quote comes from Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, which I haven’t read but should.
** Just kidding. I don’t belong to an HOA. Pretty sure HOAs were created to keep people like me out. I am fine with that.