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Keeping Death: Kirk Hammett's House of Horrors 

Wednesday, Sep 26 2012
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"That Nosferatu poster is literally one of a kind. Well, maybe." Kirk Hammett laughs, indicating the iconic, hook-nosed visage of F.W. Murnau's vampire hanging above his fireplace. We're in the living room of Hammett's San Francisco home, an unassuming Spanish-style residence whose exterior gives no indication that the world's second-biggest collection of horror memorabilia lies within.

"If there's another one out there, they're not being forthcoming," Hammett continues. "That's an interesting poster because there's hardly any promotional material for that movie. When that movie came out, Bram Stoker's widow said it was a blatant rip-off of Dracula, and ordered all the posters and movie materials destroyed back in 1922." The poster in question originates from Spain, just far enough from Germany to survive Florence Balcomb's reach.

This is the kind of conversation that makes Hammett's eyes light up — we are, after all, talking about his first love. Though famous for his nearly three decades as lead guitarist for Metallica, the 49-year-old Hammett has spent even longer amassing the collection of horror memorabilia that fills his home, including props, toys, and several walls covered by massive first-run promotional posters. His collection includes life-size — and eerily lifelike — replicas of the aforementioned Nosferatu, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a fanged, zombie-like mock-up of the guitarist himself ("many people have mistaken it for me"), as well as hundreds of prosthetic heads and masks that were actually used in films.

He's constantly on the lookout for new scores, and has flown around the world spurred by the merest tip. And for every dozen pieces of horror movie esoterica, there's one of Hammett's custom ESP guitars propped up on a stand, reminding you what he does for a living. You'd be forgiven for thinking he was a horror specialist with a guitar hobby and not the other way around — but as Hammett explains, there was no mistaking which would become his career.

"Discovering guitar sent me off a cliff," Hammett says, eyeing the actual cliff outside his window, his tone growing wistful. "At that point, everything else, including all this collecting, fell by the wayside and I became obsessed with that." Obsession comes up quite often in our conversation, specifically in reference to horror and music. Hammett had done justice to one obsession with Metallica, and he's at last doing justice to the other with his new book, Too Much Horror Business (due out Oct. 1 via Abrams Books). It's a lavishly designed coffee-table edition detailing his collection — including captions by Hammett himself — alongside an extensive interview with Metallica journalist Steffan Chirazi.

The title is appropriate: In addition to hundreds of photographs of his collection, Horror Business brims with details of the obsessive lifestyle of a collector and how that obsession has been the key to winning Hammett's most prized acquisitions — more so even than cold, hard cash. One episode details the negotiations, strategies, and emotional entreaties Hammett and his assistant, Ron Moore, deployed to procure a first-run poster of The Mummy. It's a fascinating story that shouldn't be spoiled here — suffice to say that money wasn't talking, and the piece now dominating his living room almost escaped his grasp.

In person, Hammett's horror obsession is engaging, and makes interviewing this music superstar feel like having drinks with an old friend. He's animated discussing figures like Italian director Dario Argento, zombie pioneer George Romero, and his favorite, the legendary Boris Karloff: "I remember figuring out that it was him who played Frankenstein," Hammett says. "I started reading about him in monster magazines and I realized what a cool figure he was, and he became my favorite horror actor." Though he's not so enthusiastic about zombies ("they don't have a great mythos"), Hammett does praise classic Romero films, The Walking Dead, and the recent Norwegian film Dead Snow, which features his favorite, Nazi zombies. ("Nazi zombies rule!")

One gets the impression that releasing this book is his way of making up for lost time with the horror world. Hammett may have spent years touring the world with Metallica, but he had to put on hold a pursuit that clearly consumes him. He's wondering where he'll take the collection next, both literally and figuratively. It's already been dragged across the country to Metallica's Orion Music Festival in Atlantic City, N.J. Now Hammett is considering whether he's got a horror movie in him. "It's certainly something I'd like to do before I leave this Earthly realm — now more than ever," he says. "I want to think of a way to make this collection work for me, whereas I'd been working for it for so long."

In the meantime, he's got another movie on the way, a 3-D concert film that will be Metallica's next official release, premiering in theaters in 2013. There's a narrative component to it, but, Hammett insists, "there won't be any horror or sci-fi elements in it." Asked if he'd ever considered melding his love of horror with his love of metal, Hammett replies that he prefers to keep those worlds separate. "When you meet someone like Glenn Danzig, you see how he can't not do that, and when you see how [horror] defined all his bands, from The Misfits to Samhain to Danzig, you realize that's what it means to take it seriously," he explains. "That wasn't us."

Watching the man with his collection, though, one is not so sure. Before we leave, Hammett takes another look at the poster for The Mummy, the one he almost didn't get. It's more than twice his size, and he still looks bowled over by its magnitude. Discovering guitar may have sent Hammett off a cliff, but the bony fingers of horror held on to his heart.

About The Author

Alee Karim

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