Can’t get enough of the weird world of vintage horror? Then Salem, MA is the place to be this fall! The Witch City is currently home to It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection. The exhibit is showing at the Peabody Essex Museum until November 26th, and it’s a must see for horror fans.
“It’s Alive!” is a showcase of the personal collection of Kirk Hammett, best known as lead guitarist of Metallica. Hammett is a dedicated fan of vintage horror and Sci-Fi memorabilia, and his collection is stunning.
The exhibit revolves primarily around Hammett’s collection of vintage film advertising — from massive three sheet posters, to teaser posters, lobby cards and standees. These larger than life pieces dominated the early film-going experience; gracing theater facades, lobbies, and sidewalks to draw in patrons. But as film advertising changed over time, this art was deemed obsolete and indiscriminately trashed. The pieces on display from the Hammett collection are both gorgeous and tragically rare.
Visions of Horror’s Past
Immediately upon entering It’s Alive!, it’s clear that any horror fan is in for a treat. The lighting is dark and atmospheric, and the famous staircase scene from Nosferatu (1922) is projected eerily on the wall. The exhibit uses projection creatively throughout. A specter of a scene featuring Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (1931) appears later to creepy effect. He approaches you slowly, seemingly through mist, his hypnotic stare getting ever closer before he disappears into darkness.
A UFO beam streaks across the wall above a collection of vintage Sci-Fi posters, and a lightening projection appears on the floor beneath a “Zapatron” prop, a piece of mad scientist equipment created by Kenneth Strickfaden, father of the most iconic mad scientist sets in films. His work can be seen in Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Creepy sound effects and clever displays bring an added layer of fun and discovery for horror fans. But the lifeblood of the It’s Alive! is the posters, works of art that embody the wonderful intersection of Gothic and sci-fi that defined early horror.
The Art of Terror
Illustrated poster design is a lost art, and It’s Alive! celebrates it in all its weird beauty. The creativity employed by poster artists resulted in designs that can be humorous and campy one moment, haunting and frightening the next.
It’s mesmerizing how the same film could be advertised with posters of such diverse styles. One art deco poster for Dracula (1931) has a creepy, voyeuristic vibe, heavy on the sexual undertones of the vampire myth. A pair of yellow eyes stare from darkness at a beautiful sleeping woman, and the tagline reads “The story of the strangest passion the world has ever known!” Other posters for the same film share the tagline, but show the titular vampire and the horror promised more clearly, creating an odd juxtaposition. One even shows Bela Lugosi’s Dracula menacing a frightened sailor aboard a ship — a scene that never appears in the film.
Frankenstein (1931) has a similarly diverse array of poster art on display. A gorgeous three sheet poster of the film greets visitors, and it remained a favorite of mine among all the incredible art on display. It shows Boris Karloff’s signature monster looming in the background, over a swooning woman in white. She is draped in a composition clearly inspired by Henry Fuseli’s 1791 painting, The Nightmare.
The connection between the famous painting and Frankenstein dates all the way back to the original novel by Mary Shelly. Shelly used the painting as inspiration for the scene in which the monster murders Victor Frankenstein’s bride. The unknown poster artist was clearly highlighting this connection, demonstrating the direct connection between the legacy of fine art and the history of horror.
A French poster for the same film looms like a landscape. A funeral procession that takes up only a few minutes of the film forms the centerpiece. Karloff’s monster appears menacingly above the mourners like a vision in the sky. The poster may not reflect a scene in the film itself, but it manages to evoke the themes and mood of it with haunting success.
It’s Alive! also showcased several teaser posters for Frankenstein. Like the teaser trailers and posters of today, they feature limited text and minimalist imagery. Displayed with the vintage posters we are used to seeing, these minimalist designs were a window into a side of vintage film art I was intrigued to discover!
One of the greatest takeaways from It’s Alive! is that vintage film advertising was a unique art, requiring serious creativity and talent. But during it’s golden age, it wasn’t considered anything worth celebrating or preserving. Sadly, we don’t even know the names of most of the artists who created these incredible pieces! The exhibit does a good job putting this lack into context while highlighting and celebrating the few artists whose identities we do know.
Horror in the Flesh
Poster art isn’t the only thing on display at It’s Alive! I was particularly elated to see some classic horror props and costumes firsthand. The costume worn by Boris Karloff in The Black Cat (1934) was a highlight. The suit is in incredible condition, and it was fascinating to see something worn by the legendary actor onscreen in one of my favorite horror films.
More prop highlights included alien costumes from Invaders from Mars (1953), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), and Gil-man’s head, worn in Revenge of the Creature (1955)! As a massive fan of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), seeing the Gil-man in the flesh — so to say — was unforgettable! Many of these props bridged a gap between horror and Sci-Fi — two genres that modern audiences find more difficult to reconcile. But It’s Alive! demonstrated how linked these seemingly separate genres have been from the start.
Monsters and Martians
It’s Alive! is organized in a thematic rather than a strictly chronological order. Sections highlight gothic inspired films, female driven films, monster movies, trends in poster design, and cold war era Sci-Fi. The layout encourages a better understanding of the emotions and contexts that built the horror genre.
The science fiction of the 50’s and 60’s was more often within the realm of horror than it is today. Tales of alien invasions and monstrous threats spoke to the fears of the era. It’s Alive! did a wonderful job presenting the current events that were fueling these fears in an original and fun way.
A recreated 50’s den serves as a setting for an exploration of the Cold War context of mid-century horror . A television plays cold war era news and the coffee table is full of recreated reading materiel on how to prepare for nuclear survival. These reminders of the very real horrors that Atomic Age audiences faced in their daily lives provides essential context for the horror and Sci-Fi films of the era. The exhibit strives to celebrate the historical and social significance of horror; something horror fans have always understood, but are unused to seeing in mainstream arenas.
For the Love of Horror
The Peabody Essex Museum clearly took great care when collaborating with Kirk Hammett for the exhibit. The curators took the material very seriously, showing a level of respect for horror not always expected from a major museum. As PEM Director Dan L. Monroe and Deputy Director Lynda Roscoe Hardigan explain in the forward to the exhibition’s companion book;
“Rather than delivering traditionally styled exhibitions, we embrace experiences that reframe expectations of what art and other forms of creative expression can be and what can happen in a museum. Let’s face it — have you thought about an art museum as a setting for surprising confrontations with monsters, vampires, and creatures from outer space?”
Horror fans may not expect to see their favorite films celebrated by a major museum, but we certainly know they deserve to be recognized. I can’t help but feel overjoyed to see the Peabody Essex Museum embrace horror with such dedication.
Hammett’s collaboration was visible throughout, not only in his stunning collection, but through several interviews played throughout the exhibit. In these videos, Hammett reflects on his love of horror, his childhood encounters with the genre, and finding a feeling of belonging among the weird world of aliens and monsters.
The passion and respect that Hammett has for horror is apparent in more than just his impressive collection. When he talks about the films he grew up with, he lights up with a unique joy and reverence that horror fans will instantly recognize. The curators at the Peabody Essex Museum took that joy and infused every aspect of It’s Alive! with it. From the presentation, to the pieces themselves, seeing It’s Alive! made me feel like a kid again. If you’re a horror fan and are near Salem this fall, it’s an experience you cannot afford to miss.
It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sc-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection, runs at the Peabody Essex Museum through November 26th. For more information, visit www.PEM.org.