Lady in White

October 29, 2019

ladyinwhiteReally good ghost stories are hard to come by these days. Oh, there are plenty of horror films, but the ghost story is a specific genre, with definite rules and traditions. A new film, Lady In White, fulfills so many of these traditions that it’s tempting to applaud it. Too bad it isn’t a better movie.

But at least writer-director Frank Laloggia had the right instincts. Lady in White is old-fashioned and evocative, and it rightly tells its story through the eyes of a child: a 9-year-old boy (Lukas Haas, the kid from Witness), who begins to suspect that all is not well in the quiet little town of Willowpoint Falls.

He’s drawn into a mystery when two bratty pals lock him up in a school coat closet at Halloween time. It’s the very same room where, 10 years before, a little girl was murdered … yipes! This night, of all nights, a man breaks into the room, discovers Haas there, and tries to kill the boy.

This leads the kid into a mystery that involves the strange murders of a handful of children over the years, and ends up at the spooky old house at the edge of town and an encounter with the ghostly lady in white, “a mysterious, long-robed woman who roams the cliffs at night.”

The script is full of creepy incidents, although it telegraphs the identity of the child-killer fairly early on. There are no surprises, but there is a lot of affection for the expected twists and turns of the classic ghost story, along the lines of a familiar old tale told ’round a campfire.

Laloggia seems to be attempting to capture the autumnal chill of Ray Bradbury’s small-town horror stories. Unfortunately, Lady in White has a low-budget look that sometimes undercuts the director’s more expressive moments. And not all the actors are up to snuff, although Haas provides an effective hero. (Alex Rocco plays his widowed father, Len Cariou the father’s best friend, and Katherine Helmond plays the weird old woman who lives in the dilapidated shack by the cliffs.)

Lady in White has its problems, but it does get closer to raising occasional gooseflesh than the disappointing adaptation of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes a few years back, which covered similar territory. It’s an honest, well-meaning try, and endearing even when it’s at its clumsiest.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

I’m not sure where Mr. Laloggia went, but he posts on Twitter every now and again. The film has a following, for sure. At the time it was a welcome break from the dismal run of slasher films that had dominated the earlier part of the decade.

Mrs. Soffel/Witness

October 16, 2019

mrssoffelIt should come as no surprise that leading foreign directors inevitably gravitate toward America; there’s still no better place to make movies if you want the most sophisticated technicians and equipment, not to mention actors.

The exciting boom in Australian filmmaking in the late 1970s has produced a bushelful of interesting directors, many of whom are working in America now: Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies), Fred Schepisi (Iceman) and George Miller (Twilight Zone) have lost none of their talent in the transoceanic crossing.

The latest immigrants are Peter Weir (Picnic at Hanging Rock, The Year of Living Dangerously) and Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career). They’ve both managed to retain their idiosyncrasies, while adapting well to a clean, forceful style suited to American moviemaking.

Armstrong’s Mrs. Soffel is the more problematic of the two. It’s based on the true story of convicted murderers (brothers played by Mel Gibson and Matthew Modine) who were sprung from their Pittsburgh prison in 1901 with the help of the warden ‘s wife (Diane Keaton), who had fallen in love with the Gibson character.

Intriguing situation. It offers the irresistible spectacle of l’amour fou and the perplexing filmmaking problem of dramatizing action that takes place primarily within prison walls. The growth of the love – which begins with Keaton trying to convert the brothers to Christianity and Gibson trying to take advantage of her position – is well drawn.

Even better is the sequence of flight, after the breakout, which begins with the fugitives sliding gleefully on the icy Pittsburgh streets, and ends with their getaway sleigh being pursued across snowy farms near the Canadian border.

Until that time, however, Mrs. Soffel remains strangely uncompelling, despite the passion of the actors. It’s the kind of movie that seems more impressive as you re­member it than when it is actually playing.

witnessWith Witness, you know right off the bat you’re in mysterious Peter Weir country. The sense of unidentifiable strangeness that Weir can convey so well is present in the early scenes in a Pennsylvania Amish community, which has not updated itself in a century.

During a journey outside the community with his widowed mother, a little Amish boy (Lukas Haas) witnesses the murder of a policeman in a Philadelphia train station men’s room. In the course of the investigation, the cop in charge (Harrison Ford, cannily and humorously used), finds a bigger conspiracy than he had imagined, and it’s necessary for him to flee with the boy and mother (Kelly McGillis) back to that insulated Amish community.

Weir loves to examine the clash of cultures, and this situation gives him plenty of opportunity. It also gives him the chance to develop a lovely, tentative love affair between the cop and the Amish widow. There’s a beautiful scene when Ford fixes his car radio (his car is the only one around, since the Amish still use ­horse-drawn carriages) and he and McGillis do a romantic little dance to “Wonderful World,” a song she’s probably never heard.

The Amish community is nowhere more wonderfully drawn than in the character of McGillis’s other hopeful suitor, played beautifully (and close to silently) by ballet star Alexander Godunov. He loves her, but he sees that she likes Ford; as a believer in nonviolence, and apparently genuinely respectful of this other passion, he does not interfere with the newcomer. He even starts to like him a little.

Weir has achieved something very impressive here: Witness succeeds as a commercially viable suspense movie, without ever compromising itself as a lyrical examination of different people and cultures. You don’t see that too often, and it’s something to take heart in.

First published in the Herald, February 14, 1985

It is entirely possible that I would like Mrs. Soffel today more than Witness, but at the time there was no question the latter film caught the 80s moment much more than Mrs. Soffel did. Witness has people in it I didn’t mention, such as Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, and Patti LuPone. It also provided a memorably amusing moment at the Oscars when one of the writers made the comment about his career having just peaked.