Published May 27, 2019Ever since he was five or six years old, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett has had an obsession with horror movies. His collection of movie posters, props and collectables started small but grew into one of the world's most prominent archives of the movie genre's history as he gained fame with his band in the '80s — and now, he's bringing his massive collection to Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, with an exhibit called It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection.
Public interest in Hammett's collection grew during Metallica's Orion Music + More Festival, at which he hosted a small exhibit and led panel discussions with legends of the genre. The vast scope of his collection was put on full display for the first time last year at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and it's now on its way to the ROM, starting on July 13, 2019.
"Toronto is horror city central," says Hammett over the phone in an Exclaim! interview. "It's the great Northeastern horror capital, and I mean that. There's a big market for horror in Toronto, and I think Toronto realizes that too. [The ROM] approached us and said they were interested in getting the collection, so it made perfect sense."
Hammett's collection spans the entire history of horror movies, from early 20th Century films like Frankenstein and Nosferatu to '70s and '80s slasher films and everything in between. Determining which pieces made it into the exhibit was no small process, but Hammett believes he's made the best selections to represent the full history of the horror genre.
"The pieces that are picked are the pieces that have the most relevance. Also I have a tendency to lean toward pieces that are more illustrative and have a certain amount of visual appeal. A movie like Nosferatu is really important because it's the very first vampire movie and there's hardly any material that has survived from the '20s."
The guitarist says acquiring the props and movie posters has been amazingly difficult. Over the past three or four decades, Hammett has integrated himself into a network of dealers and collectors whose sole job is to search for rare pieces that are usually auctioned or traded amongst other dedicated collectors.
"There isn't a store that you can walk into and just buy them like you can with comic books or antiques or what not. When a rare movie poster comes up it's usually at an event, and usually word travels pretty quickly within the hobby," says Hammett.
While original production pieces and posters from the '50s and '60s are less rare, early 20th century pieces are very scarce due to the majority of the materials having been destroyed. During World War II, movie studios sent their promotional materials to stores, theatres, newspaper exchanges or poster exchanges for use until the end of a movie cycle. Afterwards, trucks collected the paper from these businesses for recycling to support war efforts.
"The ones that survived did either because someone really enjoyed the poster or they were used in some sort of utilitarian fashion," says Hammett. "They were used as insulation between walls or the floor or they would be put up in a closed off room and that room would be opened up 80 years later and all of a sudden there would be all of these artefacts on the wall."
One of the most prominent components of the museum exhibit is Hammett's awe-inspiring posters. The guitarist believes they represented films differently than they do today due to the limitations studios faced. While viral marketing campaigns, digital trailers and TV or social media promotions attract people to certain movies today, these forms of advertising weren't available at the time; studios had to get more creative with their poster designs.
"Back then the movie poster was 90 percent of promotion for the film. You didn't have television, and you had radio but radio was its own thing," says Hammett. "You had trailers, but you could only see trailers in the movie theatre, so the only other promotional material was movie posters. They had to design these movie posters so that when a person was walking by they would be visually striking and appealing."
Hammett identifies the '30s as the most important era of the artform — the decade set numerous precedents for horror movies to come, and established the idea of the Hollywood horror monster in the public's conscience — but the '50s played a hugely important role in its evolution due to changes in production and marketing. It was then that B-movies were born.
"All of a sudden there were a whole lot more independent filmmakers in the '50s than there were ever before. Henceforth, there were more movies and horror movies, and some of these movies that were made with super cheap budgets are, for me, really entertaining. These people were trying to make movies on really thin budgets and were forced to be creative and improvise," says Hammett.
The history of horror movies will be on full display throughout the exhibit, but the Metallica guitarist also wanted to highlight an aspect of museum exhibits he feels has been lost over the years. Hammett composed an original piece of music for visitors to hear throughout the exhibit as a follow-up to the original song he and his wife wrote for the Peabody Museum exhibit. He hopes to be able to perform live at some point for the ROM show.
"Back in the day — you know, hundreds of years ago — whenever there was an event there would be a piece of music that was written to be played at the time of the event. That tradition has kind of gone away these days. People just throw in a DVD or whatever, but I'm actually composing a piece for this show, and it's a companion piece to the last piece of music I wrote."
It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection will be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum between July 13, 2019 and January 5, 2020.