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  • What Do We Do with Vacant Space in Horror Films?
  • Karl Schoonover (bio)

Does horror make the potentiality of space available and extend the operations deeming vacated spaces empty ones, thereby making them imaginatively available for acquisition and for other endeavors, such as clearing agendas (gentrification, redevelopment, demolition, etc.)? Or does horror interrupt those processes, drawing an awareness to our complicity in the visual regimes that demand we see vacancy as an emptiness that must be filled? These questions need to be asked with an awareness of their geopolitical inflection in particular contexts, such as in Italy in the years during and just after the so-called economic miracle, the label given to the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, a period characterized by the promotion of American-style consumerism and broader access to middle-class standards of living.

A landscape of redolent blankness provides the opening shot for the first Italian horror film of the postwar period, I vampiri/ The Vampires (Riccardo Freda/Mario Bava, 1957) (Figure 1). After a montage of stills of Paris architectural landmarks during the credit sequence—postcards of the Hôtel de Ville, the Palais Garnier, etc.—there is a long shot that begins with the Eiffel Tower and then slowly pans left, revealing a barren stretch of land. This flat expanse of marshland drained of texture and contrast provides a spectacularly unspectacular start to Italian horror's ur-text. The [End Page 342] foreground of the shot reveals the banks of a river, and we find ourselves in a broad empty space, almost as if we have been returned to the Po River sequence of Paisà (1946), Roberto Rossellini's neorealist war film from eleven years earlier. As with that film, the I vampiri camera happens upon a drowned body found in the river, and people drag its limp form onto the shore.

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Figure 1.

Empty urban space slated for development appears as a vacancy in the opening sequence of I vampiri (Riccardo Freda/Mario Bava, 1957).

Pivoting on this scene of generalized vacancy, the film cues a reorientation of the gaze toward urban space. This shot is politically opaque, however, and as such it also introduces an undecidable politics that hovers over vacant spaces in Italian horror of the next decades. Is this shot a parable about embracing reconstruction or one that serves to unhinge modernity's hubris? In the camera's horizontal trajectory as well as in the real time of a single take, the film hedges its bets: The Eiffel Tower, ultimate product of European nineteenth-century modernity, gives way to fields of vacancy and finally to views of a construction site busy with cranes and teams of workers. Ending the shot here signals the seeming victory of progress, the colonization of a land left fallow. And yet this location resembles a site of excavation, extraction, and/or demolishment as much as it does a site of redevelopment. The unsettling discovery of a nameless corpse in broad daylight finds a subtle echo in the uncertain terms by which this land is being worked. The question of what happened to this body is overlaid with the question of what is being done to this place. Is this the scene of fallow land being filled? Or is this a once occupied neighborhood being appropriated and deemed empty in anticipation of future development? Wide-open space as neither decidedly vacant or emptied haunts this crime scene. This space, in fact, appears to yield the dead body, and thus a menacing unknowability opens up in the [End Page 343] frame, a spatiality to which this genre will return and will exploit many times but will struggle to resolve.

The brutality of an anonymous unclaimed corpse and a random act of violence are interwoven with the horror of an irresolvable open space. Bava will repeat this opening shot of panning across a relatively clear horizon in Ecologia del delitto/A Bay of Blood (1971). Adam Lowenstein argues that this later film's "treatment of landscape and death intersects with horror spectatorship in ways that may teach us something new about how the aesthetics and politics of horror...


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