What needs to be noted first is that Lady In White has the look and feel of a quintessential 80s film. The opening sequence alone featuring a long cab drive to a small town in upstate New York clearly places the movie in that decade, complete with phony-sounding voice overs and inexplicable quick cuts. It seems most American films of the 1980s were afraid to take their time in depicting a scene, and Lady In White is no exception.
The film's opening serves as a clumsy frame tale that flashes back to the early 1960s. It is here, in a small town in northern New York, where the movie finds its voice and displays style that makes it an engaging horror story.
We learn that the narrator is Frankie Scarlatti, and we follow him as a young boy during one Halloween season. Frankie has a loving family life, but he is lonely and very much haunted by the death of his mother. His daily life is filled by fighting with his older brother, shyly fawning over a cute girl in his class, and avoiding bullies. He is also a burgeoning writer and at one point regales his classmates with a horror story he has written for their school's Halloween party.
After school one day, he is locked in the coat closet by the aforementioned bullies and is trapped there well into the night. While he waits for someone to find him, he witnesses the ghost of a little girl enter the coat closet. Although the girl initially talks to Frankie and seems aware of his presence, she is suddenly pulled into what appears to be a re-enactment of her murder. Afterwards, someone (a live person) comes into the coat closet looking for something, finds Frankie, and attacks him, nearly choking him to death.
The movie then becomes as much a mystery as it is a horror story. Who is the little girl? Who and why was she killed? Who attacked Frankie? These are questions that Frankie seeks to answer, all of which involve a long string of child murders in his town going back for years and a local legend about a "Lady In White" who can be seen walking through a nearby woods.
Sophisticated viewers, however, will be able to guess Frankie's attacker, particularly if they are familiar with Roger Ebert's "Law of Economy of Characters." It states that there are no extraneous characters in a film and that seemingly superfluous characters will end up playing a significant part in the plot, especially if that character is played by a relatively famous actor. I don't mean to add spoilers to this review, but Lady In White is a perfect example of this concept in action.
Also, that isn't meant as a criticism of the film. In fact, the beauty of how this is handled is that even if the viewer guesses who the killer is, it makes perfect sense that Frankie would not. And so dramatic irony is created in watching Frankie attempt to figure out the mystery and inch closer and closer to danger in doing so.
Lady In White is a film about atmosphere, about the gentle creepiness of a dark room and hidden secrets. While it isn't a film I've gone back to re-watch over the years, it has stayed with me ever since I first saw it as a teenager.