"KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park" Review
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)
Starring: Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, Anthony Zerbe
Directed by Gordon Hessler
This week's victim is a film that's near and dear to my heart 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 the breathless hype from the back of the VHS box:
"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.
...that said, I'm sure, Phantom seemed like a can't miss idea in 1978. With KISS 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 sales records, and the band's camp decided that a "KISS as Superheroes" film was the logical next step. A deal was quickly struck with Hanna-Barbera Productions -- the cartoon studio behind 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 seemed 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 the past forty years.
The Plot (Such as it is...)
The opening credits of KISS Meets the Phantom also serve as an extended commercial for California's Magic Mountain Amusement Park, where the film was shot. 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, previously 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" had 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," many viewers will already be saying, "I think I will regret watching this movie."
After the opening credits, it takes about a half hour before the members of KISS even show their grease painted faces again, but 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 begs the members of KISS to help her find him. 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 episode, with KISS in place of the Mystery Machine Gang. Sensing that these super powered rock 'n' rollers pose a threat to his Ultimate Revenge, Abner 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 bad this movie is, from its absurd premise to its ham-handed execution. The band members mostly 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. The only time Peter Criss' real voice is heard in the film is during a brief acoustic performance of the song "Beth," as the rest of his dialogue was re-dubbed by another actor. You can almost hear the band saying to themselves, "What are we doing here? They told us this would be 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 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 the epic miniseries Shogun), but the film was quickly denounced as "kid stuff" by KISS fans and did irreparable damage to the band's already-shaky reputation. The torturous process of making Phantom also aggravated internal tensions between the band members; so 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, but the band's management talked them into staying by offering each the chance to do a solo album under the KISS banner. This turned into the infamous "four solo albums" debacle - one from each KISS member - which were all released in late September 1978 (just a few weeks before Phantom premiered on NBC). This placated Frehley and Criss for a while, but their days in the band were still numbered. Peter was out of the band by 1980 and Ace 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 spoke of "wanting to crawl under his seat and hide" during the movie's premiere.
The embarrassment of Phantom lingered for a long time, but in recent years KISS seems to finally be developing 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 2007 when it was included in the KISSology Volume 2 DVD box set. The version of the film in the KISSology set is actually an alternate cut, KISS In Attack of the Phantoms, which was released theatrically outside of the U.S. I personally have never seen this cut of the film, though I'm told that it's the superior version, for whatever that's worth. Apparently different KISS concert footage was used, some scenes were changed up, and much of the generic, cartoony "action" music was replaced by tunes from the band members' individual solo albums.
Even after 40 years, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park remains a treasured bit of KISStory...even if it's for all the wrong reasons. 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 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!!
© 2011 Keith Abt