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It’s The Day of the Triffids’ fault: when he was a wee lad stuck at home in front of the television with a sprained arm (fault: sister, not triffids), Metallica’s Kirk Hammett watched his first horror movie, and he’s been a massive fan of the genre ever since. When he got a little cash to burn, he became a collector too. It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection, a lovingly curated exhibition devoted to the guitarist’s touring trove of horror- and sci-fi-movie memorabilia, opened on July 13 and will run at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum through January 5, 2020. I spoke on the phone with Hammett about horror and a few other things on July 24, the day after he gave a museum talk.
Are you immune to being nervous in front of audiences because you’ve been performing for so long, or is public speaking different?
Public speaking is a lot different. You know, playing live in front of an audience, I usually have my guitar, and my guitar just kind of speaks volumes for me. Speaking in front of a room full of people is a little bit more difficult. I’m naturally kind of a reclusive, shy person, so I struggle with it, but I know that it’s important and a means to an end, so I kind of push myself.
So, I’m a total old-movie obsessive, and I want to thank you for pointing me in the direction of horror because most of my attention has gone to noir. A few years ago I realized, “Well, I can’t read all the books I want to before I die, but I might be able to see all the noirs before I die,” so I’m going through this noir encyclopedia I have. Do you have a similar approach to horror, or is it more random?
A lot of the older stuff – fortunately, it’s a limited amount. So in my lifetime, I’ve seen most of the older vintage horror movies from the twenties, thirties, and forties. It’s all the stuff that comes after that that I’m still kind of watching, discovering. So the quest is still on to see as many movies as humanly possible. By the way, I love Edgar G. Ulmer. I know he’s a big noir director.
He worked on one of my all-time favorite horror movies, which is The Black Cat.
There’s a lot of crossover. I’m on a Vincent Price kick now, thanks to you. I just read his daughter’s book. Do you read a lot of the books about the actors that you find yourself obsessed with?
Yes. There’s a really, really great publishing house called McFarland that kind of specializes in preserving the integrity and the personality of the directors and the actors and what it was like to be on the set of a lot of these films and, you know, to be in a lot of these subgroups that were working on some of these films. It’s really amazing. Check that out: McFarland. It is really, truly amazing.
So, I have a ten-year-old and an eighteen-year-old, and when each of them turned eight or so, I got it into my head that they had to see The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, which I’ll bet you think is pretty lowbrow.
I loved that movie when I was a kid. I thought it was the greatest film.
It is! And it’s still kind of creepy. Anyway, one of my kids is a high-anxiety kid. How do you decide when and what to expose your kids to in terms of scary movies? Is there an age that’s right? Does it depend on the kid?
Well, there’s a few things. I would say that speaking from my own experience, there’s a lot of movies that I saw as a child that I shouldn’t have seen that hit me with the wrong messages and the wrong impressions of things that I found out later in life were just . . . I had to correct because I’d seen a movie that I probably shouldn’t have seen as a child. And because of that – those experiences I had as a child – I’m very, very protective of what my own children see. I’m not a huge fan of gore and violence – you know, the graphic disgusting violence of horror movies. So I tend to steer toward stuff that’s fantasy-based or paranormal-based or gigantic creatures, and that sort of thing. I think that kind of horror movie is fine. But you know, when it comes to the violence and how life is portrayed in a lot of these movies, I really think it’s unhealthy for younger minds to see. I think around sixteen, seventeen, eighteen is a good time to maybe revisit that and see how your child is. But you know, from my own experiences, one of the very first horror movies that I showed my own kids was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Which had Vincent Price in it. At least as a voice.
Exactly. At the very end. As the Invisible Man. That’s very astute that you know that. I mean, that is an insider horror fan’s piece of knowledge.
Well, it’s Vincent.
It’s Vincent. I have his cookbook, by the way.
So for me, it was a great introduction to horror because you had the classic horror creatures – you know: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, a hunchback kind of character, a mad doctor kind of character. And then Abbott and Costello, you know, really just living it up. And for me, I loved that movie as a kid. And when I showed it to my kids, they loved it and went on to see all the other Abbott and Costello movies, which is, like, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. And we’re branching out from there.
I’m not a real gore person either, and I’m more drawn to psychological horror because in my head I say, “This could really happen. There really could be this Norman Bates guy.” But you prefer the supernatural stuff – is that right?
Yeah, I do, but I also like a lot of the movies where it’s like, “Oh yeah! This is a scenario that I’m familiar with, but in this situation, this scenario is going horribly wrong!” A good modern example is Lords of Chaos, a movie that just came out about Norwegian death metalers.
Oh yeah. You wrote a blog about it, right?
The violence behind it – yeah. That for me was very relatable because there was a scene, a small music scene with a small amount of people listening to a particular type of music that people really didn’t understand. It wasn’t really popular and wasn’t really too appealing. But you know, there was a scene and people got behind it, and it grew into something big. I mean, that’s what I experienced. In this movie, the same thing happens, but things go horribly wrong. And what makes it even more horrific is that it’s a true story. But yes, I agree with you: I love horror movies where it’s your normal, just kind of everyday thing, and then all of a sudden something happens, and the protagonist is thrust into a sort of situation where they’re just, like, completely helpless. I love those types of movies. And that type of movie is really popular nowadays – like, you know, Get Out. It’s totally about that kind of thing. For me, it’s amazing that certain horror movies will take familiar feelings, common everyday feelings, and kind of amplify it and twist it into something super-horrific. And you’re like, “Oh my God!” David Cronenberg was a master of that kind of thing.
I was noticing that you tweeted in favor of the Women’s March, and you wrote a blog about The Love Witch in which you spoke of feminism in glowing terms. Is there a particular place that this comes from for you? Was it a women’s studies class? A wife or a sister’s influence?
I’m from San Francisco!
That’ll do it!
I’m just a very sensitive person, and I just truly believe that everyone needs to be treated equal. And that’s where it really all comes from. Observing the world around me. I have to tell you, in the horror genre nowadays, the fan base is incredible because it’s almost fifty-fifty male-female. There was a time, especially in the seventies, where it just seemed like the only fans that were vocal or active or interacted were male. And I always wondered why that was until I had a conversation with a female friend of mine who’s a big fan, and she said, “Well, you know, part of that was, women weren’t really allowed to express their love of horror in our culture at a certain point.” And that’s why it seemed like there was just a bunch of guys loving this stuff. I know for a fact that women like this stuff too!
I’d love to keep talking to you, but I think your people are going to get mad at me if I keep taking up your time.
It’s okay. One more.
Oh! Um . . . what made you go back to college? You had been going to college, then you stopped because of your band, and you didn’t need to go back to college from a professional perspective. I thought it was so interesting that you did.
It was my intention to always go to college, but then I got drafted by this whole music thing. And so at a point – it was, like, 1993 – we’d been on tour for so long, I think for almost two years, and my head was so just, like, up in hotel rooms and dressing rooms and planes and cars and vans. I needed something to ground me instantly, and I thought, “I know what I can do! I can go back to school and I can be a student again amongst other people,” learning and being a part of something that was somewhat regular and consistent. And it really helped me to just come back down to earth. It was just one of the best things that I could do at that point because I think at that point, our popularity – it was crazy. I mean, we were everywhere. In the media, radio, television – everywhere. It was craziness for us. And it was a way for me to just deal with it and be able to handle it all without it consuming me.
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This interview has been edited and condensed. Thanks to Anne Vranic, Jesse Milns, and the Royal Ontario Museum for hosting the exhibition and providing the cool images. A tip of the hat, too, to Kirk Hammett’s manager, Shelley Venemann, for facilitating the interview.