I love the title of this book. It sounds like something my grandmother would have said around the time I was ten years old and she had noticed my copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland, or the Aurora model kits for Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, or heard me whining that my parents wouldn’t let me go see I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. (My parent’s had inconsistent rules.) My grandmother would have looked around and said, “When is Dee going to get over all this horror business.” And the answer to that, of course, is never. It takes hold around the age of seven or eight and doesn’t let go.
This horror fascination is possibly the only thing I have in common with Kirk Hammett, who is ten years my junior but still got hooked around the same biological age. Hammett went on to be the lead guitarist for Metallica, and he has chosen to use some fraction of his disposable income on collecting horror memorabilia in a big way. Too Much Horror Business catalogues his collection of movie posters, toys, movie props, and art. A part of me has to work pretty hard to keep the quotation marks off the word art in the preceding sentence, but he was in a position to buy the original Basil Gogos paintings that became the most famous covers of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Those are cool things to have. He also has a portrait of Bela Lugosi painted in Geza Kende. A little internet research shows that Hammett paid just over $86,000 for the portrait. (Assuming he bought it in auction in 2004.) Kende was a totally forgettable artist, but that price seems about right for something with this kind of special interest.
In his introduction, Hammett states that he did not want the book to be at all academic, and to insure that he decided to compose the text from his own responses to interview questions. He does an excellent job, coming off as a knowledgeable fanboy with a genuine appreciation of material ranging from 1920’s movie posters inspired by German Expressionism to a wallet picturing the Phantom of the Opera in its original packaging!.
The toys and masks are the most interesting part of the collection. There are pages and pages of movie posters, but the abundance mostly marks the decline of poster design from the silent era to the present day. Perhaps in eighty years, the poster for Hellraiser will be as definitive of its day as Hammett’s posters of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari seem to be of theirs, but somehow I doubt it.
Back to the toys. Here the difference in Hammett’s and my age really shows, because while I remained devoted to horror films, I was too old to care about Groovie Goolies or a board game based on Alien. But seeing them now is a kick.
Photographs of Hammett appear throughout the book. In several he performs on the custom guitars he has had made from monster poster images. In another he poses with his young sons surrounded by skulls and models including Frankenstein’s monster, Robbie the Robot, and Ray Harryhausen’s Cyclops from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Father and sons snarl and make monster hands for the camera. The corruption of youth proceeds apace.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Charles Dee’s blog Potato Weather.
The Topps Company is best known for their annual sports trading cards which they have produced since 1938. But they have always maintained other lines ranging from current events to historical themes to novelties. They had dabbled in science fiction before when in the early 1960’s they decided it was time to do a series loosely based on H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds. Their initial title for the series was Attack from Space, but they wisely scrapped that for the more headline worthy Mars Attacks.
They went into production with the highly regarded pulp illustrator Wally Wood as artist, but they felt his designs were too restrained for what they wanted. They brought in Bob Powell who had illustrated their Civil War series. He gave them what they wanted, lurid scenes of mass destruction balanced against more intimate human/alien encounters. He modeled his Martians on the giant-brained creature from the Jack Arnold film This Island Earth, and he set them about alternately bombarding the great centers of human population and hunting down survivors in devastated suburbs and the blasted countryside.
Management at Topps became concerned as soon as they saw early samples of the final artwork. Too violent and too sexy was their judgment. Hemlines came down and necklines rose. Aliens and the giant insects they created could die as horribly as the artists wanted, but humans transformed into flaming skeletons were a problem. The breaking point came in a scene where an alien — the heartless, inhuman bastard — blasted a boy’s dog with his heat ray. The dog absolutely could not be shown as a flaming skeleton. For some reason repainting Rover with a full coat of fur, albeit flaming fur, passed muster.
Management was right to be worried. As soon as the first pack of five cards hit the news stands, complaints began coming in. The whole thing was too violent for kids and too suggestive for the general public. The artists began painting out some of the blood in the not yet released packs, but a call from a district attorney in Connecticut brought production to a halt. The series would be prosecuted as unfit for children.
Artists experimented with toning the whole thing down, a process that largely involved replacing female victims with men. This made for inadvertently bizarre images, since the new drawings did not receive new titles. “Prize Captive” depicted an alien abducting what looks to be a teenage boy. The man stolen from his bed in “The Beast and the Beauty” could be that same boy’s father. What does this say about Martian sexual proclivities? But these cards never went into production, nor did the series ever see national distribution.
Instead it became legendary. The cards have always been on the collector’s market, but Tim Burton’s not very good film from 1996 gave rise to a new level of interest. A copy of card number one, “The Invasion Begins,” sold at auction for $80,000. Topp’s had sold off the original artwork in the 1970’s for what I am sure at the time seemed like a good amount of money. Currently on E-Bay, a prototype of the unused Attack from Space packaging has been marked down to a mere $188,000. A set of cards — missing 39 cards! — is $11,000.
The new Mars Attacks book from Topps presents a brief history of the cards, facsimiles of the original 55 along with the story line, some original drawings, and more current artwork created for recent spin-offs. It is a worthy 50th anniversary celebration. I especially like Card 13, “Watching from Mars.” Martians kick back with red martinis and watch the destruction of the U.S. capitol on a large-screen TV. Pitchers of that red martini mixture show up later in a 1990’s image of a Martian/human wet t-shirt contest. Where is that Connecticut D.A. when you need him?