By Mike Lewis // "It's Alive" is the book. He's been collecting the posters since 1989.
Even if you don’t want to admit it, each one of us collects something. For some it might be only in limited amount whereas others become virtually obsessed and will do anything possible to obtain whatever they think they need to add just a little more to their collection. When I was a teenager it was comic books, something I eventually outgrew while today I’m more intent on adding yet another blu-ray into my already vast assortment of films or picking up yet another piece of Haunted Mansion merchandise that I simply don’t have room for. Then there’s those trips to Japan where I inevitably end up in Akihabara where I attempt to work out what toys I might bring back, contemplating both budget as well as available luggage space.
Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett has a love of horror movies. He has written books about the subject, held his own music festival that focused on both horror and metal, and if that wasn’t enough to convince you of his passion, the impressive air brushed guitars with some iconic horror posters might show you otherwise. Perhaps one of the holy grails of memorabilia is the poster.
When video stores still existed it was easy to get posters for films you loved but the true collector wanted those that hung in theater lobbies and prior to home video that was the only way to obtain these but for those looking, even something like an original Evil Dead will set you back hundreds of dollars while something like an original Frankenstein is going to set you back thousands of dollars. In 2015 a Frankenstein poster which had sold for $262,900 went up for auction and ended at an astounding $2.1 million.
Kirk is showing is love affair with horror once again. His latest book, It’s Alive, features a look at some of the horror posters in his collection and features classic Universal monsters posters, cult classics, and even an assortment of modern cinema. He’s also been out of the road with Metallica touring for their latest release Hardwired... to Self-Destruct so needless to say, he’s been a bit busy. Kirk however was gracious enough to take some time to answer a few questions for us regarding his passion of horror.
At what point in your life did you become a serious horror poster collector?
Well, around 1989 I acquired a bride of Frankenstein half sheet. It was the first 1930’s era Universal horror piece I had acquired. I remember sitting in front of it, staring at the images, and thinking, “Classic. So great … I gotta get more of this stuff.” It was totally in step with everything else I was collecting and it felt like the final frontier and I liked the challenge of the stuff being super rare and super scarce and having to go out and search for it. Really look for it, network, look under rocks, the whole deal. That whole process appealed to me and the unpredictability of it made it all very exciting, because you never know what’s going to come up. So I would say 1989 was a pivotal year, because that’s when I made the decision to move full on into movie posters and made movie posters the foundation of my collection. As it should be.
What do you feel sets the artwork of horror apart from other cinematic genres?
Horror posters have evolved, or at least changed, over the decades. I would say in the 20’s it was all about expressionism, the Weimar Republic, all influenced by the state of things in culture. You’ll find a lot of the movie posters from 20s have a real distinct German expressionism look to them, and rightly so. I think the Germans were really the pioneers of the horror movie in terms of taking the stories and making full length features out of them.
The French had a lot to do with it to, around the turn of the century, but the Germans really turned it into a valid art form. The Germans took what was going on with them culturally and funneled it into the movies and the design of the movie poster. Then in the 30’s, romance and romanticism in the movies was huge. It would be hard to find a movie that didn’t have some sort of love interest in it. It didn’t matter if it was a western or contemporary story, a horror movie, a period piece, there was always a love interest.
So that being pretty much the main pull for audiences at the time, of course the horror movie poster would have to pull that romanticism into it. A certain amount of beauty, a certain amount of elegance. So that’s why the movie posters for me, from like 1929 to 1937, are the most beautiful. Because the artist tried, and usually very successfully, to mix elements of horror with elements of romanticism. Two perfect examples are The Mummy one-sheet; with the Mummy right there and the woman in the corner looking up ... there’s romanticism implied in that. It’s a very romantic image.
And the other one is the Frankenstein three-sheet which has the monster’s head and a woman in a wedding dress splayed out on a bed or cushions. And the Dracula one-sheet where it has a woman and there are two eyes glowing in the dark and the tagline is the story of the strangest passion the world has ever known. So that whole love interest romanticism thing is implied in most of the posters from the early 30’s and that’s my favorite period.
Then from the late 30’s into the 40’s movie posters became very formulaic and started to rely on the same sort of graphic, the same sort of layout. I suspect someone did some market research and decided that was the best look for horror movie posters, and that became the dominant look through the 40’s. They started to change at the end of the 40’s and into the 50’s, where they became much more exploitative and much more graphically visual. It became more like it was selling a product, which it was. During the 50’s, you know, a lot of these studios would come up with the movie title and then design the poster before they even got around to shooting the movie. From the 60’s on we’re in the age of the modern movie poster which has been de riguer until now. That kind of graphic formula hasn’t really changed much since then.
The only difference now between posters from the 60’s and posters from right now is that you might have different materials that the posters are made from. You could have them printed on metallic paper, it might be double sided, it might have texture, it might be embossed or lenticular. There are a lot of different types of posters because of technology, but still, the way the images are portrayed really hasn’t changed much since the 60’s.
How important is having the original poster from the country of origin to you and why? For example, owing a poster for Paura nella città dei morti viventi instead of City of the Living Dead (or Gates of Hell.)
For me what’s more important is if the poster is original or not. What I mean by that, is if the movie poster came out the year the movie was released. So a French Bride of Frankenstein poster from 1935? Yeah, I’d be all over that thing. A French Bride of Frankenstein poster from the 60’s? I wouldn’t be so interested. However, there are amazing re-release posters the French did, and I have in my collection a French Bride of Frankenstein re-release that came out in the 50s and the image is amazing. It’s a full color image of the Frankenstein monster and the bride, and I love it. So I guess what really dictates how I would acquire a poster is how good it looks. Country of origin? Not that important. Original? A major major factor. But if the graphic is killer and the movie came out in the 30’s but the poster is from the 50’s? Yeah, I’ll buy that sucker.
Which posters do you consider to be the most iconic?
Again, anything from 1920 to 1936. Just about anything. Everything that comes out of that period is so incredibly great and so visually appealing to me. For me that was the golden era of movie poster design.
Are there any posters that are considered “lost” that you wish you had in your collection?
Well, all of the movie posters that haven’t been discovered yet, and there’s a lot of them. Let me give you an example. A Dracula three-sheet. Someone has a Dracula three-sheet. Until one is discovered, it resides in the column with the title in big capital letters “LOST”. That’s as good a term as any for something that might just not exist.
Personally I find modern horror movies lacking in many ways, what are your thoughts on the current state of the industry?
I think horror films and the horror genre are extremely healthy right now. It’s the biggest it’s ever been, and a lot of that has to do, I think, with all the great horror series coming out. and by horror series I include Stranger Things, the Walking Dead, Ash Vs Evil Dead, the Exorcist … I mean come on, that’s great stuff for the horror fan. And it’s not one single movie it’s serialized, it’s like the old serials of the 30s and 40s but better, because you’re getting whole series. Bring it on!
And there are a lot of great and original movies coming out now too. There was a time when the horror genre was a little tired. It was either Slasher flicks or situations that have been done to death, but in the last 15 years there has been a whole new generation of screenwriters, producers, directors who have really put in the time and effort to make quality horror films that I think have managed to push the genre forward and elevate it. I feel fortunate that I’m around to experience it.
Its fun, you know? Almost like it’s a new movement no one is acknowledging. Well, I’m acknowledging it, and it’s wonderful. And it’s backed up by all of these magazines, conventions, blogs, and websites. So I think it’s strong. And for me, sitting in my little corner, it’s the fact that the Peabody Essex Museum saw my book and recognized the cultural significance of these posters and they’re taking a chance, and it’s a chance on horror.
Are there any posters that you regret not buying when you had the opportunity?
You, know I really don’t want to get into that, mainly because it’s such a loaded question. It happens often. There are things I’ve passed on I shouldn’t have passed on, there are things I’ve sold I shouldn’t have sold, and there are things I should have sold that I haven’t. I’m only human. I can’t always make the 100% correct decision for my collection every single time. I’ve made mistakes.
I’m assuming that like many collectors you’re picking things up at some of the auctions sites (Heritage Auctions for example), has there ever been a time when you were outbid?
Ah… yeah. That happens often. As much as I’ve invested in my collection, everyone has their limits, you know. And unfortunately in the movie poster collecting world I know of more than a few collectors who have really deep … deep … deep pockets. There are certain pieces that come up for auction and I know that I have about as much chance as a snowball in hell to get those pieces. There are Corporations that want to buy movie posters. I can’t compete against that.
What advice do you have for those who may be interested in collecting but aren’t certain on what to look for or whom to approach as far as their purchases?
Well, everyone has a different process to their collecting. I would say what you need to do is first decide what you like, what you really love. Then you decide what exactly you love about it. And then you decide if it’s worth collecting or not. Once you have all that, you start at ground zero. You have to figure out your resources to get whatever you’re collecting.
Find your own path and your own journey, and that’s part of it. That’s part of the joy of collecting. Forging your own path through the collecting world and developing these relationships with people, interacting with the people, interacting with the movies, interacting with the posters themselves. And by that I mean go to physical stores and look at physical stuff. Don’t rely on the internet. Not for this. Get out there and pound the pavement, make phone calls, talk to people. If you’re serious, you need to really do it. Because anyone and everyone can click on a button and buy something, but to be a collector, you need to find the places that other people haven’t found. And I also have to say that you have to have fun with it. It helps.
Go out and explore, see what’s going on locally, and see what movie posters exist around your own personal space. Make a day of it. You never know what you’ll find. You might find something amazing, which would be cool, or you might find something really amazing and end up calling me.