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IT'S ALIVE! CLASSIC HORROR AND SCI-FI ART FROM THE KIRK HAMMETT COLLECTION

Updated: Sep 10, 2023



PEABODY ESSEX MUSEUM

DATE(S) VISITED: OCT 30, 2017
LOCATION: SALEM, MA

Best known as the lead guitarist of famed heavy metal band Metallica, Kirk Hammett is also an obsessive collector of horror and sci-fi film art, where he has dedicated the last three decades to creating one of the world’s most important collections in memorabilia. The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA showcased around 135 pieces from his private collection with works from 20th-century cinema, including posters, rare works by unidentified masters as well as related memorabilia such as, lobby cards, film props, costumes, and even Kirk's electric guitars. Hammett credits his collection as a primary source for his own musical creativity, reflecting, “the stuff of horror has a mojo that always works on me. I start producing ideas. They just flow like liquid.”


Team H headed to this exhibition on Halloween Eve, and it was amazing to view these iconic pieces from horror movie history. The exhibition also delves into the cultural meaning of horror and sci-fi films and the scientific underpinning of fear, especially with the current political and social economic struggles during the era in which they were made.


Below are some of our favorites, and excerpts, from the exhibition.

 

THE UNNATURAL & THE UNDEAD


Universal Pictures released three features in quick succession, these were Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, during the Great Depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929. These huge Hollywood hits and their iconic monsters transformed the horror film. Their promotional posters remain some of the most commanding and vivid ever designed. These films can be viewed as ruminations on nature, mortality, and the otherworldly. The artists who produced the posters presented each monster in a manner that evoked empathy and promised a good scare.



Dracula, 1931


Produced by Universal Pictures

Lithograph

Printed by Morgan Lithograph Company


Transylvanian Count Dracula leaps menacingly from an arriving ship in pursuit of a defenseless man and the entire scene is set off kilter to heighten the visual tension. The political overtones of this illustration - a threat arriving from a distant land made sense to an American public that had recently passed laws to limit Eastern European immigration.



Set of lobby cards for The Mummy, 1932


Produced by Universal Pictures

Photomechanical Print


These small cards were produced in sets to illustrate key moments in a film's storyline and were displayed in theater lobbies. Unlike posters, many lobby cards were based on photographic stills of scenes in a film.



Wolf Man makeup test mask for actor Lon Chaney Jr. from Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948


Produced by Universal Pictures

Plaster, wax, hair, glass, paint, shellac, and clay


Bud Westmore, a makeup artist, experimented with materials to transform actors into character in a fraction of the time taken by previous approaches. This test mask is a prototype for rubber masks that were significantly quicker to put on and more pliable, which allowed a greater range for the actor's facial expressions.


 

DARKER FICTIONS


Horror emerged as a distinctive genre after World War I. Filmmakers accentuated the startling and disturbing as they adapted popular folktales, fairy tales, novels, and plays. New film interpretations of the work of William Shakespeare and other famous writers opened in theaters, and their posters emphasized the more unsettling elements of the popular literary narratives. Other productions evoked the aura of Romantic classics, for instance, using Edgar Allan Poe's titles and imagery for marketing purposes, while the film plots often bore little or no resemblance to the originals (some things never change eh?)


 

FROM REALMS BEYOND


After the invention of the atomic bomb in 1945, aliens invaded theaters in droves. They came to Earth with knowledge beyond that of humans. Other creatures surfaced from unfathomed ocean depths, often provoked by humans intruding on their territory. Posters played on surprising appearances and superior strength in these characters, as well as moviegoers' anxiety about their intentions. Some aliens came to dominate or destroy humanity, echoing Cold War fears of Soviet invasion and infiltration by Communist spies. Others exhibited greater intelligence and morality than humans, only to be treated as specimens, chased away, or obliterated. With the Space Race, the American imagination expanded, and more movies connected us with aliens, not on Earth but in galaxies far, far away....



Prop suit from Invaders from Mars, 1953


Produced by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Plush cotton fabric, zippers, metal, painted papier mache, and wool.


Although the technical effects used in Invaders from Mars seem simplistic by contemporary film standards, the use of vivid SuperCinecolor photography and acute camera angles was visually striking. The actor wearing the seven-foot tall Martian prop suit towered over the human characters enhancing the threatening effect.


It was exciting for Matt to see this historic movie prop as this film will always hold fond memories of watching it for the first time one late Friday night, with my grandparents. One thing you do notice about the aliens in this film, when they re-use the same shot or passageway in the alien spaceship, just filmed at different angles, you can see the zipper on the rear of the suit.



Gill-man prop head from Revenge of the Creature, 1955


Produced by Universal Pictures

Latex, rubber, canvas, paint, metal, and glass


A stuntman wore this full-hea dlatex mask underwater while filming. A hose supplied air to the actor's mouth, and another to the gills, which open and close. The original design of the creature from the Black Lagoon has long been credited to Westmore, then head of the makeup department for Universal Pictures.



Horror of Party Beach: The Curse of the Living Corpse, 1964


Produced by Iselin-Tenney Productions

Offset lithograph


With the advance of television and declining theater audiences in the 1950's, promotional gimmicks expanded from lobby standees, decorated theater exteriors, and street ballyhoo to include ploys and devices within the productions themselves. Horror films led the way and posters were a primary means of conveying the latest novelty thrill. This poster for a twin bill promoted a pop music group and noted that moviegoers would need to free the theater from blame if the film caused death by fright.



King Kong Standee, 1933


Produced by RKO Radio Pictures

Lithograph mounted on panel

Possibly printed by Morgan Lithograph Company


"An attraction so BIG and UNUSUAL... we invented a new kind of poster for it!" To emphasize the outsized scale of the great ape, promoters created a vertical six-sheet poster to sell to theater operators. The poster was designed to be manipulated in several ways: it could be attached to the theater exterior, or cut out and mounted onto a backing board for display in a lobby or on a sidewalk.


 

SHE


Poster artists have rendered the scantily clad bodies of stereotypical defenseless females, lying vulnerable in the paws and jaws of monstrous predaters, from the dawn of the genre. This recurring portrayal reveals gender norms and the cultural expectations of audiences of their times. By the 1960's, the social consequences of the feminist movement inspired new roles in Hollywood and reflected evolving societal beliefs about gender. The hypersexualized woman, arriving from outer space or under the sea, was a new and transgressive threat, while psychology charged female vulnerability was amplified with new portrayals of woman tortured by internal forces.



Dracula's Daughter, 1936


Produced by Universal Pictures

Lithograph

Printed by Morgan Lithograph Company


A female vampire struggles with her inherited compulsion to drink blood. While images in the Dracula posters show his character as a direct threat, Dracula's daughter displays vulnerabilities and hesitancy that arouse pity in the viewer.



It Conquered the World, 1956


Produced by American International Pictures

Offset lithograph


This particularly low-budget film was released as a twin bill with The She-Creature. Musician Frank Zappa described the monster as an inverted ice cream cone with teeth around the bottom. The poster was far more risque than the film, which did not have a scene of a woman in lingerie.


 

LAUGH ONE MOMENT, SCREAM THE NEXT


"There is a thin line between horror and hilarity", wrote Robert Bloch, author of Psycho. While the two genres appear to excite opposite mental states, both create tension by transgressing the boundaries of what is expected or acceptable in a normal world. Horror leaves us squirming, but the horror spoof and its gallows humor provide a release of nervous energy and defuse our fear through laughter. Frankenstein may be frightful in one film and comedic in another. If the surrounding narrative does not invest him with fearsomeness, he is rendered ridiculous. Comedy and mock horror often rely on scenarios that are fearful for kids but satirical or exaggerated for adults.


Psycho still remains one of the definitive psychological horror thrillers in the history of cinema, and there can be no doubt that this masterpiece will continue to shape the genre for many more years to come. Despite its status as one of the greatest horror films of all time, Hitchcock actually considered Psycho to be a comedy! “The content was, I felt, rather amusing and it was a big joke,” the filmmaker clarified. “I was horrified to find some people took it seriously.”


 

MAD SCIENCE


What happens when scientists are driven by ambition or overlook ethical standards? What if they have outright evil intentions? The sentient plants, mutant animals, and sinister masterminds in these posters illustrate some of the dilemmas associated with scientific advancement. Since Dr. Frankenstein created his monster, these lab-coated characters have engaged in experiments with a range of consequences. Havoc reigns when remarkable discoveries like new species, microscopic lasers, and radiation fall into the wrong hands. Creatures like Godzilla become a metaphor for nature's retaliation when they are confronted with humanity's arrogant scientific dabbling.



Zapatron prop, mid-20th century


Aluminum, iron, Bakelite, paper, paint, and casein-formaldehyde resin.


Laboratory film sets are notable for their dazzling array of strange, crackling lightning generating devices. Kenneth Strickfaden specialized in high voltage special effects and electrified film props, like this fictional invention called a zapatron. He created mad scientist laboratories for many horror films, including Frankenstein (1935), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Mel Brooks's comedy spoof Young Frankenstein (1974).


 

THE EYES HAVE IT


Scientists, psychologists, and artists have long known that faces and eyes captivate us because the need to pay attention to them is ingrained in our evolutionary strategies for survival and communication. These compositions feature expressive eyes, of monsters and of victims, and reflect a portion of the broad range of emotional and mental states that they can reveal. Some of these eyes convey an imminent threat, some display outright fear, and some implore you to see their plight. These posters eyed theatergoers as they walked past the movie house or across the lobby.



The Walking Eye, 1936


Produced by Warner Brothers Pictures

Lithograph


Some film promoters requested that theater managers cut the glaring eyes from their posters and mount them around the theater so that "wherever anyone looks, there will be a pair of eyes staring at them: brooding eyes that lend a mysterious tinge to your lobby." They also suggested mounting some of the eyes in front of a green light so they would glow against a black background.


 

ZOMBIES! RUN!


Belief in zombies, human beings reanimated by supernatural powers, has its roots in Haitan folklore and the Vodoo religion. American pop culture absorbed the walking dead into film, television, games, comics, and even music. WHile vampires, popular in the 1990's and 2000's, have crept back into the shadows, zombies have risen up and taken over the box office in recent years. Certain zombie characters arouse empathy because they are both aggressors and victims. Some critics have associated their popularity with younger Americans and their feeling of alienation from mainstream society, its values, and institutions.



The Walking Dead, 1936


Produced by Warner Brothers Pictures

Lithograph


This original production of The Walking Dead tells the story of a man who is brought back to life with an artificial heart after having been wrongly executed for murder. After witnessing the deaths of those who framed him, he too dies by a bullet. Though the main character appears ominous in the poster, he and the woman depicted are both fighting for justice. Later, comic books and a television series adopted the same name for stories about zombies taking over the world.



White Zombie, 1932


Produced by Victor and Edward Halperin Productions

Lithograph


Zombie folklore first appeared in the seventeenth century among slaves on Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). The word, likely with West African origin, referred to a human corpse whose spirit, neither good nor evil, had been reanimated. In White Zombie, the main characters are foreign visitors to the island. The film's central horror was advertised in racist terms as: "They knew this fiend was practicing zombiism on the natives, but when he tried it on a white girl, the nation revolted!"



Zombies: Dawn of the Dead, 1980


Distributed by Target International Pictures

Offset lithograph

Printed by Broomhead Lithograph, England



Night of the Living Dead, 1968


Produced by Image Ten

Offset lithograph

Printed in England


Night of the Living Dead was generally perceived as a subversive critique of American society, but was interpreted from many angles. The threat menacing the characters spawns from the humans themselves, with no apparent cause or explanation. Although the words ghoul and zombie are never used in the film, the poster artist featured a skull without clarifying whether it is that of an attacker or a victim.


 

Portrait of Bela Lugosi, 1932


Painted by Geza Kende 1889-1952, United States (born in Hungary)

Oil on Canvas


Lugosi is known to millions of film viewers as the actor who played Dracula and other fiends, but he stood for his portrait as a stylish man, without makeup or costume.


 

THE COLLECTOR


Kirk Hammett is lead guitarist for Metallica, a heavy metal band that is among the most commercially successful musical acts of all time, having sold over 110 million records. Hammett has been an avid fan of horror and sci-fi films since childhood. He has collected posters and related art for his entire adult life. He credits much of his musical creativity to this lifelong fascination. The fevered emotions that horror inspires, anxiety, fear, empathy, are a catalyst for his creative process.


Hammett worked with ESP Guitar Company to create a group of guitars that embody his notions of the emotional link between horror and his music. When he performs with these instruments, they offer his audience a visual association of a source for his creative energy.


  • Noferatu guitar, 2015

  • White Zombie guitar, 2011

  • KH Demonology guitar, 2016

Alder, maple, rosewood, laminated graphic, active electronics, and steel and aluminum hardware.


 

THE MAIDEN AND THE MONSTER


Inspired by the gripping visuals and scary stories associated with his posters, musician and collector Kirk Hammett will take you on a journey of attraction, repulsion, and possession with this original composition for the It's Alive! exhibition.


Music by Kirk Hammett and Lani Hammett, "Maiden and the Monster," string arrangement by Blake Neely, drums performed by Marcel Feldmar, recorded by Mike Gilles, mixed by Greg Fidelman, 2017, © Kirk Hammett.

 

For even more photo's of our visit, check out our Facebook gallery page.

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