Lady in White is available on Blu-ray now.
Many films stand out within my earliest memories of horror, from the haunting terror and intrigue of The Shining to the nightmare of Phantasm. But, one film carries a more profound memory, The Lady in White. It was my first real introduction to social horror as it reflected the real terrors of the world around us. I clearly remember my youthful anticipation as I sat down to watch Laloggia’s film, but as the VHS whirred, I quickly realised that Lady in White was so much more than a simple ghost story.
Frankie (Lukas Haas) comes from a loving Italian-American family; he is intelligent, curious and full of imagination, with his love of writing shining through at school. But, as the final day of school before Halloween draws near, Frankie finds himself the victim of a nasty school-yard prank as he is locked in the school cloakroom. Alone and scared as the school shuts down for the night, Frankie falls asleep on top of a storage unit. When he wakes, the ghostly figure of a young girl stands before him. As Frankie watches in fear, the girl talks to a hidden figure, first with joyful laughter and then with terror as the hands of the figure wrap around her neck, she cries, struggles, and kicks, but each action cannot stop the life from leaving her body.
(1988) MGM / New Century Vista (Jason Presson and Lukas Haas)
Unsure of what has just happened, Frankie sits silently in shock until a man enters the cloakroom dressed head to toe in black. But, this is no ghost; this is a real, flesh and blood figure. Frankie tries to remain silent as the man searches a small heating grate on the floor, but as a rat scuttles over Frankie’s foot, the man is alerted to his presence, and Frankie finds his life threatened as the man’s big hands wrap around his slender throat. As Frankie drifts toward death, he is rescued by an unseen, ghostly force before waking from his ordeal to find his father and the local police at his side. But can the young boy solve the mystery of the ghostly girl’s murder? And who was the man who nearly ended his life? Even more perplexing, what is the link to the local legend of the ghostly Lady in White?
Lady in White laces its classic supernatural story with a fascinating murder mystery as LaLoggia embraces an M.R. James-inspired world of horror. Here the supernatural world is far less scary than the human one surrounding it. Set in the small town of Willow Point Falls in 1962, themes of racial oppression surround the murder mystery at the heart of Lady in White. We see the black caretaker of the school quickly arrested for attempted murder with no evidence – his arrest, a smoke-screen as the police openly admit he is easy pickings. LaLoggia’s exploration of race in Lady in White reflects not only the horror of racism in 1960s America but the differing experiences of minority groups, some of whom chose America as a home and others who had no choice as they were forced onto slave ships.
LADY IN WHITE, from left: Lukas Haas, Jason Presson, 1988. ©New Century Vista Film
Coupled with its discussions on race, much of the social horror comes from the child murders at the heart of the story and the ghostly girl’s violent death – a death she is forced to re-live in spirit form every night at 10 pm. Since Lady in White’s release, this image has been seared into many childhood memories. But, once again, it’s not the supernatural terror that stands out but the horror of a murderer who runs free, as Frankie realises that not all adults are trustworthy. Many hide deep, dark desires and secrets behind a gentle, loving smile. Lady in White pays homage to the beauty of the classic Victorian ghost story while embracing ideas that would later be found in films ranging from The Sixth Sense to The Devil’s Backbone and The Orphanage.
Lady in White was a labour of love for LaLoggia, its journey to the screen two years in the making. However, since its release, Lady in White has disappeared into the mists of time, its availability patchy at best. But Lady in White will always hold a special place in the hearts of those who entered LaLoggia’s world; after all, it showed us that horror is a human creation, not a supernatural one and asked us to embrace, not fear, the ghosts around us. More often than not, they are simply trying to warn us about our world’s true human horrors.