Lady in White (1988) Retrospective

SUMMARY

In a flashback, horror author Franklin “Frankie” Scarlatti tells a story on the way to his hometown, Willowpoint Falls. On Halloween 1962, Frankie, then 9 years old, is tricked by school jokesters Donald and Louie, leaving Frankie locked in the school’s cloakroom after the last school bell has rung. Trapped well after dark, he witnesses the ghostly scene of a brutal attack of a red-haired little girl. Suddenly, he is attacked and strangled by a dark figure. Losing consciousness, he again sees the girl, and she mysteriously asks for his help to find her mother. Frankie is revived by his father, Angelo, and rushed to the hospital. The police arrest the African American janitor, Harold “Willy” Williams, believing him to be the attacker.

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As Frankie recovers at home, Frankie’s brother, Geno, brings him a newspaper article about the attack, and he learns it was linked to the deaths of eleven other children, all apparently at the hands of a child serial killer. The name of the girl he met is also revealed to be Melissa Ann Montgomery. She continues to haunt Frankie, and the two form a tenuous friendship. Striving to help her, he returns to the cloakroom to investigate. Remembering that his attacker began unscrewing the grating over the air vent prior to the attack, he removes the cover to discover several dust-laden objects, including a few toys, a hair clip and a high school class ring. He pockets the hairclip and ring, then leaves. Later, Frankie overhears the chief of police talking to his father, who reveals the case against the janitor is crumbling, and that the cloakroom is also the scene of Melissa’s murder. After considering this new information, Frankie confides in Phil Terragarossa, a family friend, that the class ring likely belongs to the killer and that he thinks the killer returned to the cloakroom to retrieve it as the air system was due to be replaced soon. Unbeknownst to Frankie, the ring, which had accidentally fallen out of his pocket earlier, has been found by Geno and hidden away again.

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Later, Donald and Louie lure Frankie out to the nearby cliffs, where they encounter a ghostly lady dressed in white. All three boys take off running and Frankie collides into Geno within the surrounding forest. Frankie tries to explain the link between Melissa, the attacker and the lady in white, but is unsuccessful. One evening, Melissa appears to both Geno and Frankie. The town clock begins to chime and Frankie realizes that her nightly death re-enactment is about to commence. They follow her ghost to the school then wait until her lifeless body reappears, which is then carried by an invisible figure out of the school and onto the cliffs. At the last minute, she awakes and begins screaming as she is thrown over the cliffs. A pale, blond woman dressed in white then comes out of the cottage. Upon seeing Melissa’s lifeless body on the rocks below, she flings herself off the cliff and also plunges to her death. The ghostly scene ends and the brothers head home. Finally, Frankie understands the source of Melissa’s anguish. He vows to help her bring her killer to justice.

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Willy finally has his hearing, but a grand jury fails to indict him due to insufficient evidence. Outside the courthouse, the distraught mother of one the murdered children shoots him to death in his car. Geno begins to research the class ring he found. Using one of his father’s old yearbooks and class ring, he realizes that their father and the killer wore the same type of class rings. Angelo’s yearbook reveals that the initials on the ring, “MPT”, belong to Michael P. Terragarossa. Geno quickly deduces that the “P” stands for Phillip—as in their family friend Phil—and he rushes to tell his father. Frankie happens to be with Phil at that same time, and Frankie realizes Phil is the killer after he begins whistling “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”, Melissa’s song. Phil realizes that Frankie has deduced his secret and attacks him, but Frankie escapes and runs to the cliffs. Phil catches him and confesses to the murders just before he starts to strangle Frankie again. Suddenly, Phil is struck from behind and they both collapse to the ground.

Regaining consciousness, Frankie finds himself in Melissa’s old cottage with Amanda Harper, and learns that she was the one who saved him from Phil, and that she was the lady in white Frankie earlier saw when he was with Donald and Louie. Amanda reveals that she is Melissa’s aunt and has been living in the cottage since the deaths of her sister and niece. Without warning, Phil attacks and kills Amanda, setting the building ablaze in the process.

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Pulling Frankie from the burning cottage, Phil attempts to throw him over the cliff. However, Frankie drops safely to the ground when the ghostly lady in white suddenly appears and frightens Phil, causing him to tumble over the cliff’s edge. Melissa emerges from the burning cottage and the two ghosts happily reunite, ascending into the sky in a cascade of light. As Frankie crawls away from the ledge, Phil grabs his ankle. Angelo, Geno, and the police arrive and save Frankie. Angelo also tries to save Phil, but overcome with shame, Phil lets go and falls to his death, despite Angelo’s pleas. Everyone watches the cottage burn to the ground as the snow begins to fall.

DEVELOPMENT

Frank LaLoggia is a triple threat, a writer/director/composer who puts equal weight on all his talents. they are each showcased to the utmost in his new film, Lady in White, which combines a tense and mysterious script, stylish direction, and a full symphonic score in the manner of John Williams. It’s a serious and exciting piece of work.

Frank LaLoggia shot the film in Lyons, a small town near Rochester, which kept costs down. The film is filled with traces of La Loggia’s own family background and tradition – heavily Italian-American. “What I did was make a very personal film with what is, I hope a mix of chills and wonderment,” said La Loggia. Working outside of the Hollywood/studio system has permitted La Loggia the freedom to personalize without sacrificing “roller-coaster” excitement. “The distributors would have much preferred a ‘Freddy’ movie,” La Loggia said, referring to the ghoul of the Elm Street series. “That kind of film is much easier to deal with.”

Director Frank Laloggia may have lived the last 13 years in California, but he calls himself “an Easterner born and bred.” The writer/director of Fear No Evil and the new supernatural thriller Lady in White grew up in upstate New York, and for The two films, “the settings seemed more than appropriate for the storytelling. As I was devising Lady, all kinds of memories came back.”

In addition, says Laloggia, the area provides the kind of seasonal scenery one just doesn’t find in Southern California, and he wanted the dramatic fall-to-winter change as a backdrop for his story, Lady in White stars Lukas Haas, the little boy from Witness, who once again is thrown into danger when he observes a murder. This time, the killing has occurred 10 years before the movie’s 1962 setting.

“The boy’s friends play a very nasty trick on him,” explains Laloggia. “They lock him in his school’s cloakroom after their fourth grade Halloween party, and he winds up spending Halloween night there. While he’s there, he sees the ghost of a little girl about his age manifest, and he witnesses a replay of the events surrounding her death. She was murdered in that cloakroom 10 years earlier and she’s caught in this limbo between life and death.”

It’s been years between films for Laloggia, which leads one to question why it took so long for him to make another movie after Fear No Evil. According to Laloggia, the question partially answers itself. “Fear No Evil was a project plagued by studio interference. Even though the picture was shot independently, we needed completion money, and Avco Embassy provided us with that. However, having token over the money end, they also took over the movie. They recut it, restructured it. They made it a shambles.” Bummed by the experience, LoLoggio took two years off from filmmaking and later spent some time unsuccessfully developing a project called Somewhere is Calling at Universal (for which he has since bought back the script). He also worked for a short while as a film doctor for Film Ventures; among other things, he added a number of horror scenes to their 1984 release The Power.

Frank LaLoggia
Frank LaLoggia

BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS

An Interview with Director Frank LaLoggia

 I’ve noticed that there’s a pretty sizable gap between the release of Fear No Evil and Lady in White. I was curious, what happened in your life, both professionally and personally, between the making of those two films? What was the journey from Fear No Evil to Lady in White?

Frank LaLoggia: Fear No Evil was a real let down for me. We had raised the money (my cousin Charles LaLoggia and I) to make the film independently. I took it all the way to work print (a rough cut of the film) and we needed another $200k-$300k to finish the picture. My cousin insisted that we screen the picture for one distributor in its unfinished form. The distributor he wanted to screen it for was Avco Embassy Pictures. In that era (1980 to be specific) they were a kind of “boutique” distribution shop for this kind of film. I agreed to screen the film for Avco because I had no choice. Charlie refused to raise the completion funds. I was hoping, frankly, that Avco would turn us down and Charlie would be forced to raise the money to complete the film. Instead, they “bit” and he insisted that we make the deal. So, we made the deal, they gave us the money to complete the picture, and I was forced to work with one of their executives, Donald P. Borchers, to complete the film. I fought constantly to try and maintain my vision of the picture, but I couldn’t do it, so the picture turned out as it did. It was not satisfying to me and it was not satisfying to its audience. We didn’t make any money on it because the deal that my cousin signed wouldn’t have allowed us to ever make any money on the picture. The film went out worldwide and made a good deal of money for Avco Embassy, but we saw nothing. I was broke, didn’t have a dime in my pocket, and I wound up “pitching pencils,” literally, for a couple months. After a while, a number of things started to happen. I re-cut a couple of pictures for a company called Film Ventures. Not very good films. Then, Charlie came to me and said ‘Look, we may be able to do this again (raise money independently) if we go public.’ He said that there was a possibility we could structure a penny stock offering to raise the money to make another film. I talked to him about the possibility of developing Lady in White and some of the ideas I had. So, that’s what we did. It took us quite a while to structure this public entity called New Sky Communications. We had a number of brokers around the country selling stock for Lady and it took us about three years, from beginning to end, to bring Lady in White to fruition.

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 Your film, Lady in White, it’s a beautiful, but simultaneously chilling movie. It’s a ghost story, but it’s not excessive in its horror tropes. I’m curious, what was your first attraction to telling this story? Did you set out to make a melancholy ghost story or did you plan to use it as an allegory for some of the sub-plots in the film? Basically, in other words, why did you say yes, I have to make this movie?

Frank LaLoggia: I initially said yes, I have to make this movie, when I started thinking about creating something that had to do with my past, something that I had experienced, and my family. I wanted to create something that was an homage to my family because I missed certain members that were gone. And so, that’s really what started it gelling. The thing that I can remember that most compelled me forward as to this specific idea was the cloakroom. It all started with an image in my head that had to do with being in the cloakroom, and Frankie being locked in the cloakroom. I knew that I needed to create a structure that would allow me to embellish those memories that I held so deeply, that would work from a storytelling point of view. The movie is really about loss, that’s what drives it. I can’t say that I knew that when I was writing it, but I think that’s what makes it so compelling to so many people.

It’s superbly written, superbly cast, and I think it’s a pitch perfect portrayal of an Italian-American household. I think that’s one of the things that registered with me personally when I first saw the film. How much were your characters built from your own family and furthermore, what moments of the film were drawn from your personal experience?

Frank LaLoggia: Well, Frankie’s dad was based on my dad. Frankie was a combination of myself and my little brother, Geno, and mama and papa were my Sicilian grandparents on my father’s side of the family. As to mama and papa, everything that happens in the film between them was based on my remembrance of them. They were a constant and vivid part of my younger years. When my grandfather died, my grandmother moved in with us right around the time I was ready to go to college.

What did you do with the script when you finished it?

Frank LaLoggia: I submitted it to actors and crew people. It never went to a studio. Not for one moment did I entertain the thought. That, in fact, was the biggest problem – how to finance a $5,000,000 picture without getting tied into one of the majors or mini – majors. I didn’t even want to pre-sell video because I was absolutely terrified by the prospect of one of these guys telling me what to do – being seduced by being handed all the dough if “all you have to do is this…”

So how did you raise the money?

Frank LaLoggia: My cousin Charlie LaLoggia was the executive producer; he’s an investment analyst and advisor in Rochester, New York. About three years ago, he examined the stock market with the prospect of taking our company public. As I was working on the script, he was putting together the financial vehicle and seeking out stockbrokers who might be interested in taking us public as a penny stock. That means that we went out at ten cents a share. Eventually, we sold stock over the counter with about 100 brokers across the country, minor firms, many of whom aren’t even in business anymore. We managed to raise $5 million on this basis at ten cents a share. It’s traded freely on the open market on a daily basis, Just like Kodak. At one point during pre production it dipped to as low as 3 cents a share, but later it got as high as 16 cents.

Did investors read the script?

Frank LaLoggia: No, what they got was prospectus, a basic story line, and the blessing of the SEC. Essentially what they were looking at was the referral by their stockbroker. I would venture to guess that many of them didn’t know what the hell the company was going to do. But once they began to get wind of what was happening – that we were going to make a quality motion picture – it became an intriguing prospect. We had people come in for as little as $200 and as much as $100,000. You could do that with our offering. But I don’t want to make it sound simple. We were in the process of casting the picture. I had already hired a number of key people, and about 5 weeks before we were to start production, everything fell apart. So we were sitting there with about $500, 00.00 in the bank with a picture budgeted at $4.7 million. We made phone calls for 2 days an magically found a couple of new brokerage firms ready to come aboard at the last minute. But we began production with only about $700,000 in the bank.

MV5BMTMxMDYwNTgxMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzI5ODg0NA@@._V1_Katherine Helmond says she has become well-known to film audiences for her portrayals of “oddball ladies”—and, that’s not likely to change as a result of Lady in White.  “I play a recluse whose sister and niece have both died, years apart, under very mysterious circumstances,” Helmond explains. “The loss of these members of her family has turned her mind inward; she is thought to be a crazy lady or a ghost herself. She wanders in and out of the film, scaring the daylights out of the kids, but ultimately, she’s responsible for trying to save one of thein from being killed. She’s bizarre, but still a good guy.”

 The thriller takes place in 1962 in fictional Willowpoint Falls, New York. Something happened there in a school cloakroom 10 years ago that nobody talks about—until little Frankie Scarlatti decides to find out. “It’s really a Gothic ghost story seen through the eyes of a child-and, through his experience, he discovers the answer to a 10-year-old murder.”

 It was Helmond’s friendship with the LaLoggias that led to the actress’ involvement with the film. “We all belong to a group of people very interested in doing small low-budget films, people in love with making movies. We expanded our collaboration into New Sky Productions, and they asked if I would be in this film,” she says.

 “I felt very strongly about helping to support them, they’re quite gifted, truly enthusiastic, and know how to make movies that don’t cost very much money. When they don’t go through the studio system, they don’t get bogged down in the rhetoric of ‘Oh, we can’t do that!’ or ‘If we can get Robert Redford, it’s a go!’ They just make movies! It’s great fun, and we had a terrific time. If there’s a part for me in each of their films, I’ll do them, so we can all support each other.

 “This isn’t necessarily about making money. Since I have the pleasure and luxury of doing a TV series, I can afford to do low budget movies and plays. Part of the joy of a TV series is the freedom it affords one to do other things.”

 Helmond says her role as Amanda, Lady in White’s piano-playing recluse, includes a frightening scene that is her favorite. “I love the sequence where I get caught in a burning bedroom. I’m looking at a picture of my sister, and there are candles lit all over the bedroom. An event occurs in which things are knocked over and the room catches on fire while I’m wearing a very filmy dress-it’s dramatic, very exciting visually, and tender and moving.”

That’s pretty dangerous.

Frank LaLoggia: With independent pictures, I’m sure it happens all the time. We felt it was a gamble worth taking because of the people involved, but nobody on the set knew that it was virtually week to week. Charlie would come by the set and I’d say “How’d we do today?” and he’d say “Eighty thousand dollars” and I’d say “Great” or he’d say “Twenty thousand dollars”. Making a movie under these kind of grueling circumstances can definitely take its toll. It’s not a good idea, but when your back’s against the wall, you have to make the decision to proceed or stop. We got the film all the way through production on its own, without having to go to anyone else to secure completion money.

Were there any disadvantages to trying to sell a completed picture?

Frank LaLoggia: The advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. How many times does a filmmaker get to go out there and make a film with this kind of budget without any interference? Preview audiences thought it was too long, so I took it back to the editing room and cut out 13 minutes, but nobody told me to make a single cut or change the picture in anyway.

But don’t the distributors have you over a barrel when you try to sell them a completed film, since you need them more than they need you?

Frank LaLoggia: They do you are definitely at their mercy. But I went into this with the sincere belief – with every ounce of naiveté I had left in me. That I was going to make a good film, and they’d respond to it. They did, but in a way I wasn’t prepared for. They wanted it, but they still wanted to rake me over the coals. I went to New Century/Vista because they seemed to have something at stake. They needed the picture.

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You weren’t condescending in any way when it came to the children.

Frank LaLoggia: You can’t be condescending to kids or you are doing yourself a tremendous injustice. They’re the most gloriously honest human beings you will ever encounter. What you see is what you get. What they have to say, with their bodies, with their eyes, is as truthful of a response as you’ll ever find in life. It became a challenge to see if I could be just as honest about them. There were lots of things I had to confront about myself in the process. As a result, I think every moment was an honest one.

Were there other moments, specifically, that are in the film, that are drawn from personal experience. For instance, you were never locked in a cloakroom, right?

Frank LaLoggia: Well, if I was, I weathered it fairly well. No, I wasn’t locked in a cloakroom. But I had a fear of that place, its coffin-like surroundings. The familial elements of the film had to do with my own, personal experience. The ghostly elements have very little to do with my own experience.

Were you scared to make the film so stylish?

Frank LaLoggia: I had the opportunity to do something the way I saw it. It’s a blessing and a curse. If people don’t respond, I can’t say the writer screwed me up.

Did you create the score and the script at the same time?

Frank LaLoggia: I wrote a lot of the screenplay at my piano because a flow of feeling, a melody or rhythm, would begin to happen concurrently with the writing of the scene. Often the pacing of the music would dictate the rhythm of the scene as I wrote it. I recorded my themes and I would sometimes play them on cassettes for the actors. After the filming was done, I transferred the film to video and recorded all my arrangements to the picture with a Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer and a Fostex 16 track recorder. Then I gave the completed film, with synthesized arrangements, to an orchestrator.

The film has such a powerful atmosphere, and I think that’s part of the reason that it’s had such a lasting legacy, but why, in your opinion, does the film carry such staying-power?

Frank LaLoggia: I always believed that the film had a loving audience. Over the years, people had gotten in touch with me to let me know how much they loved the film. It’s always been, obviously, a very touching and wonderful thing to hear from people who care about Lady, but I’ve never experienced anything like this. Not even in the picture’s initial release. The picture was not a big success theatrically and that happened for a number of reasons. Primarily, because the distributor simply, once again, did not fulfill its obligations to the film, as to spending (advertising wise). It wasn’t because they didn’t believe in the film, it was simply because they were at the end of their reign. They were running out of money as a company and about a year after they released Lady, they shut down.

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CAST/CREW
Directed/Written Frank LaLoggia

Produced
Frank LaLoggia
Andrew G. La Marca

Lukas Haas as Franklin J. “Frankie” Scarlatti
Len Cariou as Michael Phillip “Phil” Terragrossa
Alex Rocco as Angelo J. Scarlatti
Katherine Helmond as Amanda Harper
Jason Presson as Geno Scarlatti
Renata Vanni as Mama Assunta
Angelo Bertolini as Papa Charlie
Joelle Jacobi as Melissa Anne Montgomery
Jared Rushton as Donald
Gregory Levinson as Louie
Karen Powell as Anne Montgomery (Melissa’s mother/”Lady in White”).

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
L.A. Weekly May 20, 1988
halloweenlove.com
Fangoria#074
Cinefantastique v18n04
Starlog#132

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