Metallica’s Kirk Hammett discusses vintage horror and geek bonding
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Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett grew up soaking in hard rock and scary movies, and when he isn’t working his day job, he searches for ghoulish memorabilia from films like Creature From The Black Lagoon and Dracula. It’s been a private project, but now Hammett’s ready to share his massive stash with other outcasts who find comfort in the macabre. Hammett’s new photo/essay coffee-table book, Too Much Horror Business, contains images from his vast collection, along with thoughts and reflections about his lifelong obsession. The soft-spoken metal legend recently talked with The A.V. Club about why horror-movie makers are innovators, and whether he’ll ever go the Rob Zombie route and make movies of his own.
The A.V. Club: You got hooked on horror after hurting yourself and catching The Day Of The Triffids while recuperating. Would you say being a horror buff usually coincides with an indoor-kid personality?
Kirk Hammett: Getting sequestered and not really knowing what to do with your time and then discovering, “Oh, I can watch a bunch of horror movies” has probably played out in a lot of people’s discovery of horror. For me, one of the most perfect times to watch a horror movie is when it’s cold and raining outside and there’s pretty much no outdoor activity to be done. It kind of sets the mood.
AVC: Do you think there’s a larger, underlying kindred quality that causes fans to gravitate toward the genre?
KH: I think it goes without saying that a lot of big horror fans are just nerds and geeks. [Laughs.] I say that with the utmost love and respect. I’m aware of the fact that it’s very trendy to be geek-ish or whatever you want to label yourself, but back in the day when I was first collecting comic books and monster magazines, we were a pretty outside bunch. I would say a large percentage of horror fans or comic fans or monster-movie fans are on the fringes of society. And again, I say that in the most endearing terms. A lot of the main characters in horror movies are outsiders as well, so that outsider syndrome reverberates within horror fans and geeky collectors. It’s kind of a rallying call that brings fans and collectors together who are a little socially retarded, maybe. It’s connecting in a way that maybe we have trouble connecting in other ways.
AVC: You’re especially dedicated to horror from the 1920s through the 1950s, when the villains tended to be more grounded and vulnerable. Is that the main appeal to you?
KH: A lot of those old horror movies were character-driven. A lot of these characters, like the Wolf Man or Frankenstein’s monster or even the Mummy, they had very human stories. They had very tragic histories. Something very unfortunate had to happen to them, and while they’re redeeming it, they’re being targeted and chased by torturers with pitchforks and axes. They came from human origins too. That created, for me, a lot of sympathy. Everyone has a side to them that’s kind of unexplained and feels misunderstood. I think that’s why I can relate to these creatures more than a lot of the more modern characters today. It’s hard for me to relate to the characters in a lot of the slasher flicks from the ’80s and ’90s because of a lack of human [qualities] and pathos.
AVC: The people making horror films several decades ago, like Tod Browning or James Whale, were also taking a tremendous risk, and people probably missed a lot of the humor in their movies.
KH: Oh, absolutely. I mean, The Bride Of Frankenstein, seen in the proper light, seems pretty horrific, but it was meant as a comedy. James Whale made that movie as a comedy because he didn’t want it to be as dark as the original. Once you know that and you watch Bride Of Frankenstein, you’ll recognize that a lot of scenes are just hilarious. The whole scene with the monster going into the hut and seeing a blind hermit, and the hermit gives him a cigar and he says, “Smoke, good” and gives him a drink and he says, “Drink, good,” I mean, that’s hilarious. And then you have Una O’Connor running around the whole movie, screaming her head off. That itself is very comedic.
Those guys were definitely going out on a limb. There wasn’t much of a precedent for them to follow back in the ’20s and ’30s. The only real benchmark they had was the Grand Guignol in Paris and circus sideshows, and maybe H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce. But that’s such a small pool of reference compared to what modern horror directors have now. So a lot of those guys were pioneers in exploring this relatively new genre that was not as popular as some of the cowboy action movies and adventure movies. Horror movies were kind of the black sheep of the industry back then. A lot of them were looked at as cheap thrills, but when television came around, there was a big resurgence, because they were starting to be shown [during] late-night. A lot of these guys who got torn apart by critics were suddenly getting widely acclaimed by critics, and [their films] were getting recognized as works of art and classics. It’s just one of those things that happens in culture: Someone will make something, it’s torn apart by critics and the public, and a period of time will pass where people start to understand the creative point of view.
AVC: It seems like audiences are typically less responsive to horror once whatever cultural crisis it’s documenting—McCarthyism, the Cold War, etcetera—has ebbed.
KH: Horror movies started to wane around the onset of World War II, and after World War II, when all the troops came home, people weren’t really interested in seeing horror movies, because they had the real horror right on their front doorsteps. The production of horror kind of stopped for a while, until the ’50s, when the Cold War reared its head and you had a bunch of movies that were mirroring Cold War paranoia. That’s when a lot of these alien movies came in, creatures that wanted to take over the world. You used to have more movies that mirrored what’s going on in the society. Even today, with the zombie genre and vampire genre so popular, you can say that’s a metaphor for AIDS and transference of body fluids that infect people and change them into horrible monsters.
AVC: Do you see a parallel between loving these movies that slowly gained a cult following and being in Metallica, which developed mainstream recognition very gradually?
KH: Yeah, it kind of happens over a lot of artistic genres. People sometimes just need time to catch up to what other people’s artistic endeavors might be. A lot of times, it’s not the easiest thing to ask a person to digest something that they’ve never been in contact with before. I think horror films are no different in that regard. That happens often. Look at Van Gogh. He died poor. His paintings sell for $100 million, but at the time, no one really knew what to expect. It was so radically different from anything anyone had ever done, and I think that holds true for a lot of horror movies too, and music. When people are confronted with something they’ve never seen before, they really don’t know how to react.
AVC: Because of how public your life with Metallica has been, is it important to have this collection as a sanctuary?
KH: Definitely. For years, I told people this is the thing I do other than music. And it’s true. I’ve been obsessed with music for a long time, but I’ve been obsessed with this stuff for a long time, and it’s a nice thing to have as an alternative place of refuge mentally and artistically that I can run to whenever I feel burnt out from the whole Metallica thing. The fruits of my collecting are so great now that that’s why I’m putting out this book. One day I turned around and I thought, “Oh my God, I have to share this with people,” because it’s grown into a monumental collection of stuff. It would be a shame for me to not let other people see it.
AVC: Have you considered following Rob Zombie’s lead and making the jump into actually directing horror movies?
KH: I’d still like to think I have a lot of time left to do whatever I want to do. Now that I’m actually going above ground and establishing myself as a big horror guy. Because for the longest time, it was very personal and private, but my collection has forced me to become overt about it. So now I’m seeing where this all leads me. I have a lot of options in front of me, and I have an interest in film. We’ll just see where it goes. I would not rule out any of that. Over the years, I’ve stockpiled a lot of different ideas, so we’ll just see which ones I choose to act on.
AVC: Horror has also made a huge comeback on TV of late. Why do you think The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, etc. have been so successful when it’s often tough to translate the genre onto the small screen?
KH: I love True Blood. I love The Walking Dead. Those are fantastic series. But we’re so used to seeing horror movies and not horror TV shows that I would think the challenge would be, “Is there enough content to spread it over X amount of shows over the course of a season?” But having said that, I think True Blood is great, and the people who make that are doing a fabulous job. As well as The Walking Dead. Even though they’re serialized, they still manage to maintain a certain amount of melodrama, and I think that’s the trick there, to keep it suspenseful. For those TV shows to have a story thread that’s going through all of it, I think they’re doing a great job. It would be different if it were a Twilight Zone sort of thing or Tales From The Crypt sort of thing where it was a collection of unrelated stories, but I think what’s happening is great, and all I can say is, “Bring it on.”