exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum through November 26, 2017
With “It’s Alive!”, The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has gone where no museum has gone before in presenting the first curated exhibition of science fiction and horror movie posters from the extensive collection of Kirk Hammett, the lead guitarist for the heavy metal group Metallica. The problem for museums in such an exhibit is that the works on display––primarily posters and lobby cards––were created as advertising and meant to be disposed of when the film’s run ended. Can any of it possibly be considered art?
Graphic design and illustration are now recognized for the creativity and vision of the people behind the works, and time spent at “It’s Alive!” brings you into the nightmare worlds promoted by the mostly anonymous artists. Hammett, an immensely successful musician, has been able to indulge his interests becoming what museums approvingly call “an obsessive collector.” How obsessive? One of the outstanding works on display is for one of the “Frankenstein” films when it was shown in Finland. According to Hammett, it was discovered relatively recently when a long-abandoned projection booth was opened and the poster was found there.
If the exhibition is not a complete success it has more to do with the curation by the museum staff than Hammett’s collection itself. Much of what is shown is well-chosen and well-displayed. The museum went through much of his collection to select items, and Hammett insisted on certain items as well. Perhaps they should have just let him decide what to spotlight from his own collection.
After passing a film clip of the silent vampire film “Nosferatu,” the first part of the exhibit is a salute to the classic Universal horror films of the 1930s: “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” and, of course, the “Frankenstein” films. It’s here that we first see the curator not quite sure whether to focus on time or theme, which will prove a stumbling block for the whole exhibit. In the midst of the “Dracula” posters is one for “Nosferatu,” which predates the Bela Lugosi film, and another, “Blacula,” a 1970s mashup with that era’s “blaxploitation” movies.
Fans of Hammett will then want to spend time with a display of his guitars covered with images from the films that have inspired his music. This leads into another strong section, focusing on the science fiction films of the 1950s like “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “War of the Worlds.” In the center of the room is a mannequin wearing a costume that will strike fear in the hearts of nearly everyone of a certain age: one of the Martians from “Invaders from Mars,” a film in which a young boy sees his parents, his teacher, and even the police taken over by Martians.
At the far end of that room are three posters that should be labeled, “One of these things is not like the others.” Perhaps afraid of making it too much an exercise in nostalgia, there are posters for 1970s hits “Alien” and “Star Wars.” That’s all well and good, but the third poster is for the ’50s chiller, “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” which has absolutely nothing to do with the other two films, thematically or in the styling of the posters.
The remaining sections are thematic, with several working quite well. A range of posters showing how women have been depicted ranges from “Island of Lost Souls” to “Dracula’s Daughters” to “Rosemary’s Baby” and “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” Here, the juxtaposition of posters for different genres and from different times works well, as we notice not only stylistic changes, but also the changing roles for women.
There’s also another triptych of posters that is so off-point it’s a wonder no one objected. It is a display labeled “Laugh one moment, scream the next.” There are posters for “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” and the low-rent “Terror of Party Beach,” followed by one for Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Psycho.” Even claiming (as was done during a press tour of the exhibit) that Hitchcock thought his film a comedy misses the point. For Hitchcock, the humor was in how he could manipulate the audience (later telling fellow filmmaker Francois Truffaut that he had played them like an organ). “Psycho” is in no way comparable to other two films, and a poster for something for “Gremlins” or “Men in Black” (if in the collection) would have been far more appropriate.
The final rooms, featuring mad scientists and zombies, offer up some striking works including a huge display for the 1933 “King Kong” believed to be the last one of its kind. There’s also a series of posters for movies, like “The Crawling Eye,” where artists emphasize the gaze of who or what is depicted, reversing the usual relationship with the moviegoer.
Are these posters art, or are we lowering standards by treating advertising as something more? It helps to remember that there was a time when the movies themselves were considered disposable ephemera, and as a result, we have lost quite a bit of our early film heritage. “It’s Alive!” opens the door to more comprehensive exhibitions of movie-related art. For fans of science fiction and horror, this is a museum show not to be missed.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Time on My Hands: My Misadventures in Time Travel. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.