Now that he has grown up and has a successful career as a writer of horror fiction, Frankie Scarlatti decides to go back to his hometown, a small area next to a big city, to reminisce about his childhood. Not that he's under any illusions, life there was not as cosy as one might expect, as Frankie discovered one year when he was a boy (Lukas Haas). It was Halloween and he was excited about the party to be held in his classroom where he would read out his self-penned horror story. All went well until two of the more mischievous lads hid his new cap in the cloakroom and Frankie was forced to return after hours to retrieve it...
Writer and director Frank LaLoggia had first made ripples in the horror movie pond with cheesefest Fear No Evil, but his follow up, Lady in White, was intended as a far classier affair. Obviously inspired by his childhood (although I hope nobody made any attempts on his life when he was younger), it begins as a Something Wicked This Way Comes kind of smalltown parable, heavy with nostalgia, and that rose-coloured spectacles view of the past never quite evaporates, even in the more intense sequences. The film might well be aimed at children were it not for some decidedly un-child-friendly scenes and language.
For example, Frankie will be chatting with the kids who hid his cap and the kids will make a racist comment about the black janitor, who despite his importance to the plot gets about five lines, if that, and if anything is more symbolic than anything else. The reason he is important is that when Frankie is locked in the cloakroom, he witnesses a ghost of a little girl, Melissa (Joelle Jacobi), acting out her murder, then the actual killer appears and strangles Frankie almost to the point of death. The janitor gets the blame, and suddenly we're in To Kill a Mockingbird territory with an unfair charge stemming from prejudice.
It turns out that there is a darkness at the heart of smalltown America, and LaLoggia cannot make up his mind whether he wants to concentrate on the corruption or the schmaltz, making for a film that is all over the place in tone. Part of that darkness is a serial child killer on the loose, and has been for some years so in a Scooby-Doo fashion it's up to Frankie to work out who the villain is, with the help of his older brother Geno (Jason Presson). The family life is painted in similarly broad strokes to idealise the Italian-American experience, with too-cutesy rivalries and general corn.
What of the Lady in White of the title? She is either the old, crazy woman (Katherine Helmond) who lives all alone at the outskirts of town - you can sometimes hear her play piano as you walk past - or the spectre of a woman who has died some years before; it transpires this is the mother of Melissa who will not rest until the murderer is uncovered. To be fair, this character is well hidden but this is mainly because he hardly appears before the ending, a finale that is incredibly drawn out with about three different conclusions one after the other. Some of this shows skill, such as the initial meeting between Frankie and the ghost, but it's undercut by a slightly self-satisfied tone and the anti-racism theme is clumsily employed. Still, there's enough good here, with Haas a decent protagonist, that make it worthwhile. The music is by LaLoggia as well.