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Kirk Hammett on The Cabin In The Woods and how horror movies help loneliness

Kirk Hammett at his annual Fear FestEvil
Kirk Hammett at his annual Fear FestEvil

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fan: Kirk Hammett has achieved international success as the guitarist for Metallica. But in recent years, he’s begun a new phase of his career as a professional curator of horror memorabilia. In 2012 The A.V. Club spoke with Hammett about his book Too Much Horror Business, a photo/essay collection in which the musician shared images from and thoughts about his private collection, one of the most extensive in the world. Nearing the launch of his second annual Fear FestEvil, a combination horror convention and live music fest, the guitarist talked to us about his newest favorite film, The Cabin In The Woods, and why it deserves the widest possible audience. (Note: This interview reveals major plot points of the film.)

The A.V. Club: What do you like so much about The Cabin In The Woods?

Kirk Hammett: With a title like The Cabin In The Woods, and knowing it’s a horror movie, I was expecting something more like a slasher film, or maybe like a haunted house sort of a scenario. But when I started watching the movie, there was no real clear indication where it was going. And as I continued watching the movie, I was thinking, what’s the premise here? They’re hinting at a lot of different things, and then all the action starts. And then slowly the plot is revealed, and all of a sudden you’re like, “Wow, what a great concept for a horror movie,” you know? About a facility that’s holding all of the world’s most evil, demonic creatures and beings and entities, and there’s this whole team of people whose job it is to monitor and feed and nurture these creatures or else. And I just—I love that.

I’m sorry if I just gave away the whole fucking plot of the movie, but I like it because it’s such an original premise and it’s not what I expected, and like most moviegoers, when you’re totally off guard and surprised—I love being surprised like that. Just like totally out of the blue, a concept comes that’s so fucking different and so outrageous and I’m thinking, damn! I wish I would’ve thought of that. I consider The Cabin In The Woods one of those flicks, where it’s just so unusual.

AVC: Did you know much about it beforehand or were you going in completely cold?

KH: Completely cold. I don’t read a lot of reviews about horror movies. A lot of times written reviews give too much away, or they’re biased, or they’re reviewed by people who don’t really know the horror genre. So I don’t really give—if I do read a review of a movie, I don’t lend it too much credence, and I also have to add that I love bad horror movies. So I will watch just about any horror movie and think it was just like the greatest thing, where other people are going, “Whoa… that sucked,” and I’m thinking to myself that it was just fucking fantastic. So going into The Cabin In The Woods, I had no fucking idea. And I watched it during the day on a plane, and I got scared. Which is also a good sign.

AVC: The trailer shows brief little snippets of people in a large office building, and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is a big spoiler!” But it’s actually not, because the very first scene of the movie is the two guys in their sterile corporate environment.

HK: Yeah, and there’s no visible connection you could make between that and what you think might happen. There’s no way—like I said, it hit me so off guard, and it was so sideways of a concept that I just had to say, “Fuck yeah, man.” It was just killer. There’s no way that you can just look at anything and expect what you can expect from that movie!

AVC: There was this old couple in front of me in the theater, and right when the main girl hits the buzzer to release all of the monsters, this old lady turns to her husband and she goes, “This is so awesome!”

KH: [Laughs.] I love that! I love that.

AVC: There are other movies that are meta-commentaries on the genre: there’s Scream and Peeping Tom and Funny Games, but what was it about this one that connected with you in such a way?

KH: I loved their takes on all the modern myths and the clichéd movie monsters and whatnot. They had a little bit of everything in there. And I liked the modern sort of interpretations of a lot of those characters. Like the Frog Man. [The creature is called a “Merman” in the movie.—ed.] The Frog Man was killer. I mean he fucking burped up all that crap? Oh, Jesus—it was insane! And I really like how it ended, too. The ending of the movie is fucking great. I love endings like that—that aren’t all peachy keen, candy ass, sweet pea endings. I love the way this movie ended, because it was an ending of impending doom.

AVC: It’s about as hardcore of an ending as you can get to any movie ever, basically.

KH: Yes. It was very Cthulhu-ish, the ending. And for me, you know, H.P. Lovecraft is one of my patron saints, and anything even remotely resembling the Cthulhu mythos, I just totally am a sucker for. And the ending reminded me of Cthulhu. It’s fantastic.

AVC: Well, there’s been a lot of attempts to get Cthulhu mythos on the big screen, and they’re not always that successful.

KH: Yeah, it’s a bummer. But I heard that… what’s his name? Peter Jackson or Guillermo Del Toro were trying to make something. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” or something?

AVC: Del Toro is trying to make “At The Mountains Of Madness.”

KH: That’s right; that’s it. Yeah. I hope someone makes that film because that book is amazing. Down in Antarctica, or is it the North Pole? I can’t remember. But finding that big dwelling with all these frozen creatures and all these symbols and signs, and then people start disappearing. Someone has to make that movie.

AVC: That’s another one where it seems like we’re finally at a period in cinema where you’d be capable of making that film, technologically.

KH: It’s actually doable, exactly, with CG now, and I think that’s why it was never done in the past, because it was a daunting, insurmountable task to film like huge gigantic creatures and huge fucking dwellings, you know? With weird angles. But now you can do all that with CG, and hurry up, whoever’s going to do it, just fucking do it.

AVC: That’s a combative issue for a lot of horror fans. Where do you stand on the whole practical effects vs. CG thing?

KH: I’m really old school. I would rather have effects artists or a person who’s made up in special effects makeup, and do the bit, you know? I like a lot of the special effects props, you know, the little mechanisms and devices. I like all that stuff. All that—the whole work of creating monsters from just like latex and metal and wiring and electrical parts always fascinated me. And with the advent of CGI, it kind of turns its back on all that and throws it out the window. So for me, I’d rather see [things] get filmed physically than being done digitally, but then you have other things that are just physically impossible to film, and now you can get them on film with CGI. And I give credit to that aspect of CGI. If someone were to film a Cthulhu movie and they needed Cthulhu’s dwellings which are like huge skyscrapers at 90-degree angles, 45- and 90-degree angles, with all these huge crystal towers and spikes and whatnot… fuck yeah, man: You could do something amazing with CGI. It would be pretty impossible to do something like that physically and have it look the way it would look in CGI. So I guess it’s a double-sided blade for me. I think it’s a good thing and a bad thing.

AVC: A lot of times people will be okay with CGI as long as—especially with horror films—the CGI is not what they’re trying to make scary, and they’re just using it more to supplement the actual creation of an atmosphere.

KH: I agree with that as well. I’m not totally “no CG”—it has its place, but I think it’s more convincing when you have people dressed up in makeup or you build the fucking props and do it that way. I think it’s much more convincing. I think it just looks better.

AVC: Usually it looks better, and it’s usually scarier, too, because there’s something about that sort of manmade, human quality to it that comes through, which is why some of the scariest horror movies still rely on old-school special effects.

KH: Yeah. Manmade quality but unreal—nightmarish at the same time. That’s the good thing about doing stuff [physically]… it’s creepy.

AVC: The kind of thing that if you actually saw it in person you would probably run the other direction.

KH: Exactly. You know CGI might smooth it out a little too much and make it too easy on the eyes and not otherworldly enough. It looks too smooth, too clean.

AVC: Non-horror fans don’t always understand that the appeal is in seeing this sort of horrifying stuff get represented on-screen in a physical manner.

KH: Exactly. I agree with you 100 percent. Then there’s that other thing about CGI—when people see CGI, it often knocks them out of their reality or non-reality for a second, you know? It kind of knocks them out of the illusion. All of a sudden you’re noticing something that isn’t part of the script or the plot or the mood or anything, and for me, that’s also a problem that I see with CGI is that all of a sudden, seeing CGI is like being brought back to the reality of wait, this is not real.

AVC: And that’s what was so great about the ending of The Cabin In The Woods, is that its supplemented with CGI, but so much of it is still practical effects and you could actually see the people in costumes as well.

KH: Yeah. Exactly.

AVC: And for you, being a big horror fan, I imagine a lot of the fun must be in playing the game of spot the influence or spot what they’re referencing. Because they go through the whole history of monsters in that ending.

KH: Yeah, I loved that because it’s like, you know, we have the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame? The ending of that is just like the fucking Horror Movie Monster Hall Of Fame. And like I said, I mean, I didn’t expect—I expected one creature, I got like 750 of them or something. So that’s amazing bang for my buck.

AVC: Absolutely. When non-horror fans ask you what it is about horror that you dig so much, what do you usually tell them?

KH: It’s fun to watch. It’s thrilling, it’s similar to a roller coaster ride. It’s cheap thrills. Sometimes I like to pretend that I’m experiencing what those people on screen are experiencing, but on a much, much safer, observational level, you know? [Laughs.] When I was a kid, part of the reason why I loved horror movies so much is that I related to the monsters. I related to those characters more than I related to the heroes or anything else, you know? I related to the—

AVC: Being an outcast?

KH: Yeah. Because I was a disenfranchised youth, and a lot of the characters in these movies are disenfranchised from culture, from society, from whatever. And there was something there that I could relate to and just kind of apply to my own life and how I felt about myself and my situation. So it gave me comfort in knowing that even though I felt like an outsider, there were other people out there who probably felt the same way I did, and probably related to these horror movies the same way I did. It was a partial cure for loneliness as a child.

AVC: That’s interesting. It was a way to—

KH: I was very shy and introverted when I was a kid. I have to throw that in there. So it was a way for me… I can relate to horror movies on a lot of different levels. And it was definitely, you know, emotionally, I always felt like an outsider, outcast, and I was seeing other people in different scenarios, but it was the same sort of feelings, or so I could see. And plus, I just like the fantasy aspect of it, too. Horror movies are really fucking great stories. And I appreciated that part of it. The literal value of these stories is pretty great for me, you know? Because a lot of them are morality plays, and I think that’s another reason why I like these movies so much, is that a lot of them actually have messages.

AVC: So many of the classic horror movies are allegories for other things, whether race relations or class issues or politics, and meta-horror films like The Cabin In The Woods address that at the same time by addressing the genre as a whole. It sort of gives you the best of both worlds.

KH: Yeah. And actually some of the allegories connected to these horror movies are well known. Like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. That is a movie that seems to be remade like every decade. And every time it’s remade, it’s remade because there’s something going on in our culture that’s happening right now, and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers always seems relevant for that sort of thing. I mean, in the ’50s, it was an allegory for communism and the Red Scare. In the ’70s it was an allegory for… I don’t know. I don’t know what it was an allegory for in the ’70s. [Laughs.] But I believe the more modern remakes were allegories for sexually transmitted diseases, racism, xenophobia, you know… Horror movies are perfect for mirroring what’s going on in our culture at the moment. Because it’s really easy to personify a threat, and it’s even easier to personify that threat and put it into a creature type of characterization and then build a story around it, and then next thing you know, you have an allegory for what’s going on.

AVC: Is that sort of what fascinates you about these films?

KH: It’s one of the things. I mean I really think this whole thing with zombies has everything to do with all these modern sicknesses and modern diseases that we seem to be faced with, you know? And also the feeling of always… feeling like we’re being invaded—whether it’s by terrorists or by racism or inequality… I can go on and on. I’m trying to watch my words because I don’t want to say the wrong thing and get in trouble.

AVC: Wasn’t it John Carpenter who says, “During the Cold War, the monsters were always on the outside trying to get in, and now they’re on the inside trying to get out,” or something like that?

KH: I like that, and that’s very true. The rot in our society starts from inside. [Laughs.]

AVC: Given the overlap with the festival that you’ve got coming up combining horror and music, are you a fan of horror movie soundtracks, as well?

KH: Yes. I really love horror movie soundtracks. My top three are The Shining, The Hunger, and Re-Animator. And I just, I love horror movie soundtracks, and those are my top three.

AVC: The Hunger is kind of a surprising one, because that’s not one that people often think of when they think of the classic horror soundtracks. What is it about that one that resonated with you?

KH: Well, if you listen to the album—your classic horror track is like a very spooky vibey sort of thing. And then you’ll have a classical piece, you know—Bach’s “Cello Suite #4,” and for some reason, it works. And then the next track will be another horror-sounding track, you know, eerie sounds and whatnot, weird percussion, and then you’ll have a track from Delibes, this French composer, and for some reason, to my ears, it flows. And it’s weird because there’s such a dichotomy from track to track, but for some reason I just love how it flows, and I can put that album on and walk away from it and just listen to it over and over again. It’s a very emotional soundtrack.

AVC: It almost sounds sort of like what you were describing, the reason you love The Cabin In The Woods—this sort of blending of all these different horror tropes and icons together in one film.

KH: Yeah and there’s a congruency there that one would not expect. And I think that’s something that I look for in a lot of places, is similarity between things that you would not find similar. I think that sums it up. And that soundtrack, The Hunger, is a good example of that. As The Cabin In The Woods is.

AVC: Since this is your second time doing the festival, is there anything you learned from the first one that resulted in changes this time around?

KH: Yeah. You need to have a good staff in place. The day of the event, you know, anything can happen. And I’ve learned to expect complete and utter chaos, and I’ve learned to be prepared to deal with chaos. [Laughs.]