“It’s Alive!” Horror Film Art at the Peabody Essex Museum

By Robert G. Pushkar

Metallica’s Kirk Hammett introduces Horror Movie Memorabilia on Display at the PEM in Salem

It's Alive at PEMThe world trades on nostalgia today as never before. A look backwards not only shows evolution, but also shows a comforting continuity with the present. That’s why when a museum mounts a show rooted in Hollywood horror films of the 20th century, it’s irresistible. In Salem, Mass., the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) did just that, and called it “It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art.” The exhibition is culled from the personal collection of Metallica’s heavy metal guitarist Kirk Hammett.

Since age five, Hammett has been transfixed by all things horrific. He’s always “felt the outcast” and
“relates to monsters and feels like them,” he tells museum-goers in a video. His biographer, Stefan
Chirazi, writes that as a shy kid he was “dreamily obsessed with monsters, ghouls, toys, music and guitars.” Thrilled that his collection was chosen for display at a major museum, he wrote an original composition, “Maiden and the Monster,” for the audio room as you exit. It seems an appropriate coda in a city that prides itself in the macabre.

Kirk Hammett makes a point about a vintage FRANKENSTEIN (1931) poster.

Boris Karloff
Boris Karloff latex-sculpted fi gure wears the original suit from THE BLACK CAT
(1934). Photo by Robert G. Pushkar.
The exhibition displays 135 pieces; over 90 are vintage movie posters, bursting with explosive colors and monster mayhem. Bu, there are related items too: masks, scary toys, sculptures, even Boris Karloff’s suit from THE BLACK CAT (1934), worn by a latex-sculpted figure of the movie star. His contemporary horror-meister, Bela Lugosi, also appears in a lifesize statue, dressed in the jacket and vest he wore in WHITE ZOMBIE (1932).

Eight themes guide visitors through the collection, plus one is a grateful nod to Hammett showcasing a splashy collection of eight of his guitars. He partnered with ESP Guitar Company to create the instruments, emblazoned with movie poster images on the body.

Other themes such as “The Unnatural & Undead,” “From Realms Beyond,” and “Mad Science” bring into focus what’s displayed. Another theme, “She,” offers gender context to the graphic depictions found in posters at the dawn of the film genre. Women scantily clad in submission to monstrous predators established the stereotype of the defenseless female. In the poster for James Whales’ THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), Karloff’s monster menaces his swooning bride, reclined in his grasp, her bridal bouquet thrust back over her head in total surrender.

Bela Lugosi statue wears the suit from WHITE ZOMBIE (1932). Photo by Robert G. Pushkar.
These portrayals refl ect gender norms and women’s status in the culture during the 1930s through the 1950s. In the Sixties, the feminist movement challenged sexist mores, raising awareness about inherent gender bias in the media. Hollywood reacted, and the hypersexualized, predatory female was born in new celluloid roles, embodied as threats, not victims, originating from outer space or from under the sea.

Considered as an art form, these meticulously handdrawn posters stand as a unique genre. The use of photography had not come until much later. Therefore each poster represents a personal interpretation of film content by an individual artist. Universal Pictures, a leader in horror productions, contracted the Morgan Lithograph Company to create its posters. A cadre of ten artists worked exclusively side-by-side with Universal’s art director who controlled the marketing.

DRACULA front cover. Photo by Paige Besse
The posters, of course, were promotional, designed to lure people into theaters. They were shown in entrances and lobbies, and in train cars. They were reproduced in magazines and newspapers. A steady flow of new movies opened each week, and inevitably the posters were discarded. The poster for the original FRANKENSTEIN, perhaps the only one of its kind around, was discovered in a projection room of a defunct movie theater in the Midwest.

The imagery is rich with colors, especially green. “Green grabs attention,” Dan Finamore, who curated
the exhibit, said. “It started in the Thirties, and as you can see it never went away.” Finamore is PEM’s Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History, and grew up watching horror movies, collected black light posters, and played in a rock band.

Still, the artists who created the poster art were kept anonymous. At the preview opening, Hammett spoke at the podium and dedicated the exhibition to “all of the unsung, unknown artists who put together all those incredible beautiful movie posters.”

For more information about this exhibit and Peabody Essex Museum visit www.pem.org.

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