The artists in “It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection,” at the Peabody Essex Museum, who were, as usual in such situations, unbilled, used the visual geometry of terror—Art Deco, German Expressionism, and even avant-garde Soviet cartoon art—to foster wild and mood-evoking signage. Between the late teens and early 1960s, the nascent movie-poster genre morphed in focus from the crypt and madhouse to the lab and the far side of the moon.
Anyone remotely familiar with movie-poster collecting will swoon over the so-called “one sheet” of 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, measuring 41 by 21 inches. But what is most shocking, almost literally, is the barrage of color: the vermilion flame of Bride Elsa Lanchester’s inked-in hair, with its topaz highlights; and the green visage of Boris Karloff’s monster.
These works are largely fun, but we must bear in mind, early horror was not tongue-in-cheek. It took its frights seriously. The 1932 one sheet of The Mummy arranges Karloff’s tightly wrapped figure in a diagonal line atop that of his love interest, Zita Johann, who leans seductively against a stone from a funerary chamber. There are devils in these details, with an added touch of impishness, to let prospective movie-goers leery of the frightening content of the films, know there was fun to be had.
A 1931 lithograph of Dracula, with Bela Lugosi as the Count, has a wonderful dimensionality to it, as a terrified Renfield and an all-but-flying vampire explode out from the poster, with a carmine-red-soaked rendering of the title stamped in the middle of their singular contretemps, like some bizarre mode of horror punctuation.
The 1950s offerings have a campier element, as evidenced in the Japanese-produced offset lithograph for Mothra (1962), in which a pugnacious moth—its face bedecked in pincers—looms over two scantily clad skirt-dancer types. This moth, clearly, is an atomic mover and shaker. A different offset lithograph, for Night of the Living Dead (1968), parallels the minimalistic efficacy of the film it was promoting: the simple design of obsidian background, chalk-white skull with chalk-white text, is suggestive of the final phases of our shared dust-unto-dust fate. Sobering.
But horror films, ironically, for as much as they wish to disrupt your day, are about fun, in the end, and it’s clear that Hammett collects with that idea in mind. It’s always at the fore in this show. An offset lithograph for The Angry Red Planet (1960) encapsulates the blend nicely, with this weird cross between a spider crab and a primate drooling atop a rendering of Mars kitted out with a castle, as puny Army men fire their useless weapons into the lava-red breach. And even if you don’t know who they are (and who would?), when you read the credit line “Screenplay by Sid Pink and Ib Melchior,” you think, “Right, that makes sense”—as if anyone else could have been behind this pleasing madness.