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"It's Alive!" The Art of Horror Comes to Life at the Peabody Essex Museum

By combining rare and visually arresting works by graphic designers from around the world along with related memorabilia such as lobby cards, film props, costumes and electric guitars into a very artful presentation that depicts how movie publicity campaigns have drawn in audiences throughout the 20th century, Daniel Finamore, the Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art & History at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has definitely achieved the museum's goal of  “... looking for the sort of material that provides unexpected encounters with art, unexpected emotional responses to art, and things that people don’t necessarily expect to see in a museum."

Wait? What? Did that say electric guitars? Yep! It did. Electric guitars. In a museum exhibit. Which totally makes sense as the awesome collection of horror and sci-fi film posters used to create It's Alive! belong to heavy metal guitarist Kirk Hammett who, in his life outside of avid movie art collector, has been a contributing songwriter and the lead guitarist for the famed rock band Metallica since 1983.

With ominous, dark-edged songs in his repertoire including daunting titles like "Master of Puppets", "The Frayed Ends of Sanity", "Some Kind of Monster", "Creeping Death" and my all-time favorite stuff-that-nightmares-are-made-of tune "Enter Sandman", it's not hard at all to believe that Hammett is a die-hard horror and science fiction movie fan who spends his free time adding to the impressive collection that he began about three decades ago with the purchase of a poster from The Gorgon - a 1964 British horror film in which a Gorgon takes human form and terrorizes a small early-20th-century European village by turning its citizens to stone.


In It's Alive! Classic Horror Movie Posters from the Kirk Hammett Collection there are over 90 posters taken from Hammett's own West Coast homes - carefully culled from the collection that their owner credits as a primary source for his own sonic creativity - that have been brilliantly displayed in ways that the movie studios that pumped them out purely for promotional use never thought of.  "In their heyday, movie studios didn’t think of these posters as works of art," said Finamore. "They thought of them as promotional pieces that had a use life and when that film was no longer out there, they didn’t really care about them. They were printed up in the thousands but in many cases, you’ll see examples of only a handful or even fewer. Sometimes there is only one surviving example.”

Celebrating the graphic artistry of Hammett's posters is only part of the exhibition though as "It's Alive!" also delves into and explores the cultural meaning of horror and sci-fi films and the neural underpinnings of fear that draw people to the genre. Sure, we all know that the beasts underneath our beds, in our closets, in our heads aren't real but yet the best scary movies will have us biting back a gasp or scream as we squirm further down into our seats because they tap into the part of our brains that operate purely on instinct while superseding our rational thought process. And we love it.

Kirk Hammett has loved it since the late 1960s when he was a young boy of five who was left more or less to his own devices after spraining his arm and being plunked in front of a TV set. Rather than watching Mighty Mouse or Captain Kangaroo though, the youngster found himself watching The Day of the Triffids, a 1962 British film based on the 1961 novel of the same name by John Wyndham in which a merchant navy officer (geez, I never knew my beloved Howard Keel of Seven Brides and Seven Brothers was in a sci-fi film!) must find a way to save people who are being fed on by tall, carnivorous, aggressive plants following an unusual meteor shower that leaves most of the world blind. Yep, definitely something I'd want my five-year old watching!

From there, Hammett - a shy kid - became obsessed with movie and magazine monsters. In November 2016 he told Metal Hammer magazine, "When I discovered horror movies as a kid, I lived for horror movies. I bought monster magazines, I bought the books, I bought the toys, the comics and I just really loved it." The first monster that he connected with was Frankenstein played by Boris Karlof quickly followed by The Mummy, Godzilla, and a host of other box office beasts, comic book creeps, and magazine mutants.


Though he eventually started selling his monster magazines to buy records and eventually his first guitar, Hammett never lost his love of monster movies or horror memorabilia and over the years has amassed a huge collection. A collection that Hammett said  " ... takes me to a place where I need to be. Among the monsters where I’m most comfortable and creative. That’s where the magic has happened for me all these years and it’s something I’ve come to trust. From the moment I first encountered these characters, I could see that these guys had just as much difficulty in coping as I did. It's a very, very dark universe when we shut our eyes at night.”

So then how did the first major exhibition of Hammett's world-renowned collection come to be at the PEM and the man himself standing in front of a room full of media types talking about some of the pieces in his collection on a not-so-long ago Friday night? “Kirk was looking for greater recognition for the artists represented in his collection," said Finamore who learned of Hammett's collection through a longtime friend of the PEM, Tony Guanci, who happened to know Hammett. In other words - it was kismet coupled by the fact that Hammett and his wife Lani felt that it was time to share their monsters with the world.

Lynda Hartigan, the museum’s deputy director, said this exhibit “pushes the boundaries” of what PEM devotees experience as “fear is one of the strongest emotions we can feel and these works show what scared people at that specific period of history.” Her sentiments were echoed by Finamore who stated that “People in Salem will likely recognize much of these works before they’d recognize a Winslow Homer or a Fitz Hugh Lane painting. It has deep emotional appeal … and it shows what people were afraid of at the time. ” Wrapping up the opening remarks before we took to the gallery to check the exhibition out, Hammett dedicated "It's Alive!" to “... all of the unsung and unknown artists who put together all of those incredibly beautiful movie posters. To this day, we still don’t know who those artists were. We know of two or three of them but there could be hundreds of them. So this is for them.”

It's for us too because this is a really impressive exhibition that - even if it doesn't frighten you - will definitely have you looking at movie posters in a new light as works of art and not just as advertising. A lot of the 90+ posters on display are ones that have rarely been seen since the early 1930s while others are going to bring back a sense of nostalgia as you remember going to that movie yourself or catching it on the late-night Creature Feature show but whether you've ever seen the movie or not, the posters will indeed draw you in and the rest of the exhibition is pretty cool too. Now, if you'll follow me ...

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Clip from Nosferatu, a 1922 German Expressionist horror film directed by F. W. Murnau, starring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok.

Several of the most impressive posters that Hammett has on display are from Universal Studio's 1931 film Frankenstein which is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1931 as well as one of the greatest movies of all time. Frankenstein was also a major commercial success for the studio grossing $53,000 in just one week after opening in New York City at the Mayfair Theatre on December 4, 1931 and eventually earning the studio an estimated profit of $13 million when you add in all of the subsequent sequels.


The monster-size posters from Hammett's collection offer two very different takes on Mary Shelley's iconic monster in an effort to draw viewers into the film. Above, a three-sheet poster for the American version of the film was found in a long closed and boarded-up projection booth in a Long Island theater and is the only 6-foot example from the 1931 Universal horror classic known to exist. Below, the only surviving double-panel poster that was created about 1931 by French graphic artist Roland Coudon for the Universal Studios European version of the movie is more monochromatic and strikingly atmospheric giving the monster more of a robotic appearance.


A man who doesn't just collect posters because he likes them but understands and relates to the pieces he collects, Hammett told the assembled media, “What I really love about this poster is the atmosphere that it creates. Black, white, grey and tan – you can’t get any more gloomy than those colors put together in a scene that was from sometime in the first three minutes of the movie.  It’s one of the best scenes in the movie and I love how they took it out and put it on a poster with the idealized sort of interpretation of the Frankenstein monster."


"In the poster he looks kind of robotic ... machine-like," continued Hammett. "I always thought of him as just you know, a monster, something that was anything but robotic and that's very interesting because when I think about 1931 at that time, there's a lot of scientific innovation going on and there's a lot of looking toward the future ... people are projecting how it may be in the future and I think that some of that thinking kind of spilled over into this ad campaign because that sort of thinking was very prevalent in the late 20s/early 30s when the depression was going on and people were just wanting some hope for a better future. So you've got these very idealized sort of images coming through in a lot of the posters and this is one of them. This is the Frankenstein monster as more of a futuristic robot than parts of dead bodies put together."

 Another jewel in Hammett's collection, this 3-sheet vividly graphic poster for The Mummy attributed to Karoly Grosz - a prominent Universal Studios artist who was responsible for creating posters for the most famous of the studio’s monster films - features the burning head of the bandage-swathed iconic monster looming over three relatively frightened people below, and while some may think the monster ominous, Hammett says that the creature is not threatening but actually admiring the woman who was its love interest.


“You have this image of burning flames coming out of the mummy which to me denotes burning desire,” enthused Hammett. “There's a romantic aspect to this movie and I think that was the intention the graphic artist had, of putting that message across, and he did a good job of that.” To be honest, I'd never really thought if it that way before but the more I look at it, the more Hammett makes a good point!


As Hammett was on a time-crunch and needed to go, we spent the rest of the evening walking through the exhibition on our own taking in the monsters, the movies, the magic, and even some music during an 8-minute video in which Hammett talks about the effects of his collection on his music as well as a composition by Hammett and his wife entitled "The Monster and The Maiden" which plays at the end of the exhibition. An original composition for It's Alive!, the music takes one on a journey of attraction, repulsion, and possession inspired by the gripping visuals and scary stories associated with his posters. It is well worth sitting through - several times if you have the chance - and is the perfect ending to the exhibition.

Now, for those who may not be able to make it to Salem before November 26th when It's Alive! comes to its demise, here's a look at some more of the Classic Horror Movie Posters from the Kirk Hammett Collection ... along with some pretty killer sci-fi posters and other things too!


Nosferatu, a 1922 German Expressionist horror film was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) over which Stoker's heirs sued; a court ruling ordered that all copies of the film be destroyed however, a few prints of Nosferatu survived and the film came to be regarded as an influential masterpiece of cinema. The film was released in the United States in June 1929, seven years after its original premiere in Germany. Printed in Spain, this lithograph dates to about 1931.


This 1931 Frankenstein 'teaser' poster would have been released well in advance of the movie's release in order to build anticipation for the film. These type of posters generally did not include the textual information that would be found on a film's other promotional materials.


A poster for Universal Pictures' 1954 Creature from the Black Lagoon created by Reynold Brown, a California realist artist who painted many Hollywood film posters. This was his first poster of dozens.


Gill-man prop head from The Revenge of the Creature, Universal Pictures 1955
A stunt man would wear this full-head latex mask made by Bud Westmore underwater while filming.


Dracula by Basil Gogos, original art for Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, about 1970


Zapatron prop, mid-20th century, attributed to Kenneth Strickfaden who specialized in high voltage special effects and electrified film props.


Portrait of Béla Lugosi, 1932, by Geza Kende
When he wasn't playing Dracula or another fiend, he was a pretty handsome fella!


Béla Lugosi's jacket and vest from White Zombie, 1932, by United Costumers Inc.
The model of Lugosi is by Mike Hill, made of silicone in 2010


Loosely based on the novel by Bram Stoker, this film version of Dracula by Universal was based on a 1924 play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Lugosi's depiction of Dracula terrified 1931 audiences making his portrayal the definitive vampire and a cultural icon.


Show of hands, how many of us saw this great Abbott & Costello movie at least once on a Saturday morning? The first of several films in which the comedy duo meets classic characters from Universal's horror film stable, in this film they encounter not just Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange) but also the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Count Dracula (Béla Lugosi).


Werewolf of London was the first Hollywood mainstream werewolf movie which inspired at least four pop culture entries: Warren Zevon's 1978 hit song "Werewolves of London"; the 1981 film An American Werewolf in London, the 1997 sequel An American Werewolf in Paris and the 1987 video game Werewolves of London.


I still remember going to see this particular film when I was 14 at the movie theater on Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire so seeing this poster definitely brought back some memories for me. My guess is I probably tried to cower under my seat a couple of times but unfortunately my memory doesn't work as well as it used to so I can't tell you exactly how scared I was!


 Boris Karloff's suit from The Black Cat, 1934, designed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the film's director.
Boris Karloff figure by Mike Hill, 2010


Starring Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Universal's 1934 film The Black Cat was was the first of eight movies (six of which were produced by Universal) to pair the two iconic actors. It became Universal Pictures' biggest box office hit of the year, and was also notable for being one of the first movies with an almost continuous music score.


Original prop collar from Invasion of the Saucer-Men, 1957, by Paul Blaisdell
Saucer-man figure, 2011, Monster Effects


In the more 'artistic' range of movie posters, these two lithographs in Hammett's collection are quite stunning.


Then there are those electric guitars mentioned at the beginning of this post ...  Hammett’s signature-series ESP guitars have custom paint jobs from classic horror movies such as The MummyWhite ZombieFrankenstein, Dracula, and Nosterfatu.


Meanwhile, back at the posters ...



There's 1968's Barbarella starring Jane Fonda and 1962's Mothra - both scary in their own rights! The Barbarella poster was created by Robert McGinnis from Connecticut while the graphic artist for Mothra is unknown.


Produced by Toho Company and Jewell Enterprises, this 1956 poster of Godzilla King of Monsters! promotes a heavily re-edited Americanized version of the original 1954 Godzilla produced in Japan. The Americanized version introduced most viewers outside of Japan to the character.


If this 1977 poster for Star Wars didn't get you into a movie theater to see what went on to become an epic science fiction soap opera-style franchise then you weren't looking closely enough at it! Released on May 25, 1977, the first movie in the Star Wars trilogy earned its studio $775 million making it the second-highest-grossing-film in North America and the third in the world. I seem to recall having a copy of this poster hanging over my bed shortly after I saw the film - the first couple of times!


Leaving an awful lot to one's wild imagination, this 1979 movie poster for Alien was perfect in its simplicity. Speaking of not needing to say a lot and yet get the message across while becoming iconic in their own right are posters from the 1968 American psychological horror film Rosemary's Baby written and directed by Roman Polanski and The Exorcist, a 1973 adaptation of William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel of the same name which my parents expressly refused to allow me to see as they assumed it would give me nightmares the better part of forever. They were probably right.


Even though there are a lot more pieces in the exhibition that I'd love to show you, I think it's best that I let you go and see them yourself as this exhibition - which will be open during Salem's very popular Haunted Happenings in October when the city goes a little, shall we say, nuts? - is well worth the drive to Salem even if you have to fight the traffic a little bit to get there. Looking at these posters and other items in a photo is all well and good but to really get the impact of It's Alive! you really need to stand in the dark and look at the pieces from Hammett's amazing collection in person. It's really that impressive!

It’s Alive: Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection,” at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts runs through November 26th. For details visit: PEM.org. All images used in this post are mine; all of the pieces are courtesy of the Kirk Hammett Horror and Sci-Fi Memorabilia Collection.

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