"KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park" (1978) Review
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)
Directed by Gordon Hessler
Welcome once again to "It Came From the Bargain Bin," a column dedicated to the budget conscious B-Movie fan. This week's victim is a film that's near and dear to my heart both as a B-Movie buff and a die-hard rock 'n' roller - KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, the cult classic 1978 TV movie starring the iconic hard rock band. On paper, this sci-fi thriller certainly sounds like a can't miss concept. Check out some of the breathless hype from the back of the VHS box:
"The dynamic rock group KISS makes its feature film debut in a spine tingling mystery that matches KISS' extraordinary powers against a demented genius inventor ...featured is some of KISS' best music, performed with stunning special effects!"
...of course, anyone who's actually seen the film will immediately call B.S. on the claims that it's "spine tingling" and features "stunning special effects." The only "stunning" thing about this movie is how bad it is. KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park is a hilariously awesome train wreck of epic proportions, with cheap sets and effects, a ridiculous plot, out-to-lunch scripting and uniformly terrible perfomances, all slathered in a shiny layer of glorious low budget '70s-TV Cheez Whiz.
Phantom probably seemed like a can't miss hit in 1978, since KISS was at the peak of their mainstream popularity. Marvel Comics had recently produced two giant sized Super Special comic books starring the band, who became super-heroes with mystical powers thanks to a set of mysterious amulets. The rockers' battles with Doctor Doom and other Marvel Universe villains were silly as hell, but the books broke all of Marvel's previous sales records, so the band's camp decided that a "KISS Superheroes" film was the logical next step. A deal was quickly struck with Hanna-Barbera Productions -- the notoriously shoddy cartoon studio that brought us "Scooby-Doo" and dozens of other cheaply animated Saturday Morning favorites -- and the NBC television network. In the rush to get the project on the air in time for Halloween, no one at NBC or Hanna-Barbera bothered to worry about unimportant details like a coherent script, or whether anyone in the band knew how to act. The result was a film that bad movie aficionados and KISS Army members alike have been laughing about for more than thirty years.
The Plot (Such as it is...)
The opening credits of KISS Meets the Phantom resemble an extended commercial for California's Magic Mountain Amusement Park, as the cameras linger lovingly over the roller coasters, merry go rounds, and attractions while Godzilla sized versions of the KISS members perform "Rock and Roll All Nite." KISS is slated to play a series of concerts at the park, which manager Calvin (Carmine Caridi) hopes will finally bring a much needed attendance boost and cash infusion to the struggling amusement area. Less enthusiastic is Abner Devareux (a slumming Anthony Zerbe, of Papillon and The Omega Man), the eccentric creator of the park's lifelike cybernetic robots and mechanical attractions. Abner's ticked off because Calvin has been funneling money away from his research projects to pay for "that rock and roll." After an argument with Calvin, Abner is given his walking papers... but what management doesn't know is that part of Abner's "research" involved kidnapping random park attendees (!!) and re-programming their brains for use as his own private android army (gosh!). When Abner swears to Calvin "You will...regret ...this day," most viewers will already be saying, "I think I will regret watching this movie."
After the opening credits, it takes a good half hour or so before the members of KISS even show their grease painted mugs in this movie again. Unfortunately, it doesn't get a whole lot better once they do. We're introduced to the lovely Melissa (Deborah Ryan), whose boyfriend Sam (Terry Lester) works in Devareaux's laboratory. When Sam mysteriously disappears (we already know he's become one of Abner's android zombies ), Melissa gets a quick brush-off from Abner so she begs the members of KISS to help her unravel the mystery. Remember, kids, in whatever alternate universe this film takes place in, KISS is not just a rock 'n' roll band, they're super heroes too!! Thanks to a way-cool set of glowing mystic talismans, each band member has a special super power - Gene Simmons is the fire breathing, animal growling "Demon," Ace Frehley is the "Space Ace" with powers of teleportation, Paul "Star Child" Stanley can shoot laser beams out of his eye, and Peter "Cat Man" Criss possesses cat like strength and agility (as well as a seemingly endless well of bad feline-related puns).
From here the film basically turns into a live action "Scooby-Doo Movie" with KISS in place of the Mystery Machine Gang. Sensing that these super powered rock 'n' rollers may pose a threat to his Ultimate Revenge against the park, Abner quickly whips up four cybernetic KISS duplicates, starting with The Demon, who vandalizes park property and injures some security guards. With KISS under a black cloud of suspicion, the band begins to poke around the park after hours, battling an army of Devareaux's robot werewolves (?) beneath the roller coaster before they're captured by monsters in the fun house. With the real band locked safely away in his secret underground laboratory, Devareaux sends his robotic KISS out onstage in their place, where they perform a "slightly altered" version of the hit "Hotter Than Hell" (re-titled "Rip and Destroy") in the hopes that the angry fans will start a riot and destroy the park. When KISS escapes from the mad scientist's clutches and appears onstage to fight it out with the robots, the stage is set for an earth shattering climax, because "there can BE only one!" ...oops, sorry, wrong movie.
I could go on all day about how hilariously awful this movie is, from its absurd premise to its ham-handed execution. The band members sleepwalk through their roles, as if they realized early on that they were trapped in a turkey and just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. The only time Peter Criss' real voice is heard in the film is during a brief acoustic performance of his hit song "Beth," as the rest of his dialogue was re-dubbed by another actor. I lost count of how many times a band member was replaced by an all too obvious stunt double during action sequences. You can almost hear the band saying to themselves, "What are we doing here? We were promised a combination of A Hard Day's Night and Star Wars!" Perhaps the most insulting thing of all is the film's soundtrack. You'd think a KISS movie would be packed wall to wall with their tunes, but aside from the all-too-brief concert scenes which provide the movie's few highlights, the backing tracks to KISS Meets the Phantom is mostly awful disco-influenced "action music" that sounds like it was borrowed from CHiPs or Charlie's Angels. Perhaps the best way to sum up the movie is by quoting Ace Frehley's constant, bewildering catch phrase from throughout the film: "ACK!"
Action Packed Fight Scene!
"Insufficient data at this time, Star-Child..."
KISS Meets the Phantom turned out to be KISS' "Jump The Shark" moment. When they began work on the film, KISS was more than just the biggest band in the world, they were a brand, unlike anything else in rock and roll at the time. They regularly sold out concerts around the globe, racked up a string of multi-platinum albums and willingly slapped their logo and face-painted images on just about any piece of licensed merchandise - t-shirts, belt buckles, radios, children's toys, board games, ad infinitum - that was waved under their noses. Even before Phantom premiered, long time KISS fans had begun to wonder if the band had any shame at all. By the time it aired, they had their definitive answer. KISS does indeed feel shame... because they are ashamed of this movie.
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park premiered on NBC-TV 's "Saturday Night at the Movies" in October of '78 and the faithful KISS Army tuned in to watch in droves. Phantom was NBC's second highest rated program of that season (bested only by a mini-series based on the best seller Shogun), but the film was quickly denounced as "kid stuff" by KISS fans and did irreparable damage to KISS' already-shaky reputation. The torturous process of making Phantom also aggravated internal tensions between the band members, which were already troubled before they even started shooting. By the end of filming, the four could barely stand to be in the same room with one another. Frehley and Criss both expressed desires to quit KISS and embark on solo careers during the hellish filming experience, but Simmons and Stanley reportedly talked them into staying in the group by offering them each the chance to do solo records while still under the KISS banner. The famous "four solo albums" - one from each KISS member - were released later in 1978 and though it may have placated Frehley and Criss for a while, their days in the band were still numbered. Criss was out by 1980 and Frehley finally walked away in 1982. We probably shouldn't blame KISS Meets the Phantom entirely for the breakup of the original four, but it certainly didn't help!
For most of the next two decades, KISS rarely spoke of Phantom and if they did, it was only in the most damning of terms. In the band's home video KISS: X-Treme Close Up, Paul Stanley says, "I didn't even know how the movie ended...while we were making it!" and he also spoke of "wanting to crawl under his seat and hide" during the movie's premiere.
The band were embarrassed by Phantom for years, but recently they seem to have developed a sense of humor about it. Home video releases of the movie had been limited to a laserdisc (remember those?) and two blink-and-you-missed it VHS issues during the '80s until it became available on DVD for the first time in 2007 in the KISSology Volume 2 video box set. The version of Phantom on the KISSology DVD is actually an alternate cut of the movie that was released to theaters outside of the U.S., in which several scenes were altered and much of the cartoony "action" music was replaced by tunes from the band members' individual solo albums. (Side note; I can only imagine how ticked off KISS' overseas fans must've been after paying money to watch this travesty in a theatre. At least in the U.S., we got to see it on TV for nothing!) I personally have never seen this cut of the movie, though I'm told that it's the superior version of the film, for whatever that's worth.
KISS Meets the Phantom director Gordon Hessler passed away on January 19, 2014 at the age of 83. In addition to his brief but lasting association with KISS, he left behind an impressive filmography which included work on such classic TV series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, CHiPs and Hawaii Five-O and films like The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Scream and Scream Again, and Murders in the Rue Morgue. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons both spoke to the genre-film magazine Fangoria to honor Hessler, remembering him as a "gentleman" and a "professional" despite being, in Paul's words, "being thrown into an impossible situation, trying to create a film... led by four idiots who had no concept of acting and a script that had too little pop and too much corn."
Nearly 40 years (!!) after its initial release, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park remains a treasured bit of KISStory...even if it's for all the wrong reasons. For me, the film serves as the acid test to see how much of a KISS fan a person is. If you've only watched it once, you're a casual fan. If you've seen it two or three times, you're a pretty big fan. If you've seen it five or more times (guilty), then you are a die hard, card carrying member of the KISS Army ... and you should probably seek professional help. Unless you're a complete, utterly obsessed KISS fanboy or you have a high tolerance for B-Movie pain (unfortunately I fill both requirements), my advice is to skip this one and seek out a copy of 1999's far superior Detroit Rock City if you're looking for a KISS movie fix. The band's appearance in that movie is little more than a glorified cameo, but at least the film is actually entertaining. Rip, rip, rip and destroy!!