NOVEMBER 28, 2009
After trying and again failing to be scared by The Haunting, I thought I’d try an experiment of sorts: seeing if a film that DID scare me as a youth would have the same effect on me now (or at least, remind me exactly what scared me about it in the first place). And the perfect candidate was Lady In White, which scared me when I saw it as an 8 or 9 year old but hadn’t seen since around the same time (my movie-watching habits as a kid were as thus: watch it three times when rented, once again on cable, and unless it starred Chevy Chase or one of the 80s action heroes, never watch it again). But I always wanted to give it another look, and that is why I bought it 10 years ago on DVD, and why I finally opened it today.
Well, sadly, I wasn’t scared by it this time around. The first 20 minutes would be the part that terrified me, when our young hero (who, like me as a kid, wrote stories in the classroom that would occasionally be read aloud to my fellow students, though if I had any female admirers, they never made their intentions known to me) is locked in a cloakroom (this is 1960’s speak for coatroom) and harassed by a ghost and then a child molesting killer. And that’s probably why it was the only part of the movie that I remembered, because the rest of the movie (which I didn’t recall anything about beyond someone being shot in a car) is more of an adventure/mystery thing, since the ghosts are all benevolent and the killer pretty much disappears until the final reel.
Plus, even though I had long since forgotten the killer’s identity, it’s pretty easy to figure out who he is when watching it with a wiser mind. When a movie stops cold to deliver depressing background information on a secondary character, chances are that guy is the killer, something 8 year old me wasn’t privy to. But, to be fair, I honestly think the movie is largely aimed at kids. It has some adult themes (the child molesting thing is largely underplayed, but racism is a pretty big factor in the murder investigation/outcome), but it’s all played with a rather light touch.
For example, throughout the film there is a running gag about Frankie’s VERY Italian grandparents (they run through every cliché in the book short of saying “That’s a spicy meat-ah-BALL!”) arguing about the grandfather’s smoking habit, and even in the final act we are still getting these moments of levity. Then there are a couple of bullies who keep popping up to make Frankie’s life worse, and he has the usual sort of rivalry/camaraderie with his older brother (not enough horror movie climaxes have the hero accuse his brother of jerking off in their shared bedroom). It’s pretty easy to see why I liked it so much as a kid (it even takes place in Massachusetts!), because so much of it is aimed at adolescent nostalgia, particularly the opening scene, with Frankie and his brother riding their bikes to school and getting into all sorts of good natured mischief along the way. Writer/director Frank LaLoggia’s commentary confirmed that all of this sort of stuff was largely autobiographical (strange that two of my favorite movies as a pre-teen, this and Stealing Home, were very much rooted in their filmmakers’ own childhood experiences).
I am also impressed by the period settings for such a low-budget film. I never once doubted that we were in the 1960s, with the circular screened TVs and original monster models and little record players. The effects, on the other hand, betray the film’s limited resources - the entire finale (set on and off a high cliff) is a bit stunted due to some abysmal bluescreen compositing.
It was also nice to see Lukas Haas in such an early role again. He never quite got as big as he should have been, but he’s a terrific actor all the same, and even a lousy movie like While She Was Out benefits a bit from his presence. Likewise, character actor Tom Bower pops up as the sheriff, and it’s funny to see how the guy has barely aged in 20 years (he plays Nic Cage’s dad in the just released Bad Lieutenant, and damned if he looks any different).
I think the film would be a terrific gateway horror film for children of around 9 or 10 (assuming they weren’t like me and already privy to Leatherface and Freddy Krueger). It’s scary without being gory or even violent, and like I said, has a lot of adolescent mischief that children would likely enjoy more than any adult viewer. Plus, even the scary scenes are infused with an optimistic charm (probably resulting from the filmmaker drawing so heavily on his own childhood), which is rare for horror films and thus would be nice to see before being exposed to the more cynical modern films. So parents, show them Lady in White, and THEN let them see Hostel or Cannibal Holocaust.
Elite’s DVD is non anamorphic (it IS a ten year old disc), but it is loaded with extras. First off, it’s a director’s cut version, with about 6 minutes added back into the film. It’s funny - while I couldn’t remember much about the movie and only had my memories triggered a few times, I sensed which scenes I was seeing for the first time for the most part. In addition, a few deleted scenes offer some more of that whimsy (more smoking grandpa!), but no more Sydney Lassick, who only appears in the film in a single scene (actually one shot, and a wide one at that - only his voice gives away his identity). Then there is an odd little piece that is half archive behind the scenes footage and half soundless outtakes from the film set to music, plus a bit from the film’s premiere (Hey LaLoggia - button your goddamn shirt!). Then there are a bunch of promotional materials (trailers, stills, etc), as well as a short film/trailer that was put together in order to drum up financing for the feature. LaLoggia also provides a commentary, which is far more interesting than his coma-inducing track for Fear No Evil, but there’s still a lot of overly dry technical talk and frequent gaps; I wish he had Lukas Haas join him. The DVD also provides the soundtrack, composed by LaLoggia himself, which is very Jerry Goldsmith-esque (2nd movie this week with a score like that!) and thus wonderful.
While I was no longer frightened or even particularly thrilled by the film, it’s still a charming ghost tale with a lovable cast of characters and a fairly skilled balance of real world drama (i.e. the race stuff) and a traditional murder mystery, making it the rare 80s horror movie with a fully developed story (Fright Night may be a great movie, but there’s hardly any plot to it at all) as well as a breezy sense of fun and charm.
What say you?