A spine-tingling ghost story, born out of what feels like real homespun folklore. An enthralling murder mystery about immediate dangers lurking in one's own supposedly safe Norman Rockwellian community. A sensitive coming-of-age tale, bathed in the dreamy nostalgia of youth and the pangs of stolen innocence. Beautifully written and directed by Frank LaLoggia, "Lady in White" is all of this and more, criss-crossing subgenres yet holding strong as a singular, standalone cinematic work. It's a little bit Amblin-esque and a little bit Stephen King-ish (come to think, its tone isn't entirely dissimilar to the hit 2016 Netflix series "Stranger Things"), all dipped in the honey-autumn glow of memories long past. With a prepubescent boy the film's central hero and all things spooky going bump in the night, it is no surprise "Lady in White" became a cult childhood favorite during the VHS era of the late-'80s and '90s.
All Hallows' Eve, 1962. In the sleepy New England town of Willowpoint Falls, 9-year-old Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) is played a particularly traumatic prank when he is locked overnight in the lonesome cloakroom of his elementary school. When a supernatural vision leads to his narrow survival at the hands of a shadowy unidentified killer, Frankie becomes determined to figure out the identity of the little girl whose apparition he saw and her connection to a series of unsolved child murders which occurred ten years earlier. As fall turns to winter, his investigation leads him to the local legend of the lady in white.
Sumptuously lensed by cinematographer Russell Carpenter (who would go on to have a long prosperous career, shooting such major Hollywood productions as 1997's "Titanic," 2000's "Charlie's Angels
," and 2015's "Ant-Man
"), "Lady in White" is an autumn lover's dream, opening with idyllic snapshots of foliage and pumpkin-filled life in small-town Americana. This cozy aura expands to the film's authentic production design, costumes, dialogue and overall mood, its every element joining together to create the feel of something not only set in 1962, but squarely made during this era as well. Some of the optical effects work is, shall we say, dodgy by modern standards, but this only adds to the affectionate throwback charm of the picture.
The refreshingly unprecocious Lukas Haas (2015's "The Revenant
") anchors the story as young Frankie Scarlatti, his naturalism going a long way as he bravely tries to get to the bottom of the mystery plaguing him and his entire town. The late Alex Rocco is trusty and affecting as Frankie's widowed father Angelo, wanting to protect his son while dealing with the valid fears of losing a child, while Jason Presson shares tangible chemistry with Haas as Frankie's older teenage brother Geno.
"Lady in White" traverses dark and foreboding territory while still narrowly retaining its PG-13 rating, which may be another reason why it has proven so enticing for younger, more courageous audience members. Adults, meanwhile, will view it from a different perspective and angle, one saturated in the poignancy of childhood remembrances and a fuller understanding of its more mature, sinister thematic insinuations. With the possible (and very minor) exception of an opening present-day scene that doesn't really lead anywhere in relation to the story proper, the film scarcely steps wrong. "Lady in White" is a deliciously layered, visually atmospheric, gravely underappreciated seasonal thriller aflame with the embers of a classic campfire yarn.