Movies We Like
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park
At the height of their superstardom in 1978 it was time for the Kabuki make-up sporting rock band Kiss (Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss, Ace Frehley) to branch out into the movies. After all, it was the same year that The Bee Gees starred in the super dud, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Instead of going the way The Beatles did 14 years earlier when they hooked up with an acclaimed young director, Richard Lester, to helm their little masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night, Kiss wanted an easier cash-in, or so the story goes. So instead of doing an edgy film to keep up with their violent, hard rockin’ persona, they hooked up with TV cartoon producers Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, etc.) in the hopes of selling their products to a much younger audience and ended up with a disastrous TV-movie that the band has more or less disowned. Though not as campy as The Ramones in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School or as weird as The Monkees in Head or as boring as Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer, it is a few levels better than The Village People opus, Can’t Stop the Music. Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park is truly one of the great oddities in the mixing of rock stars and celluloid; it can be hard to find on DVD as it’s only available in different bootleggy editions (and surprisingly a European cut is on a Kiss anthology DVD), but as a pure piece of cultural fascination and laugh-out-loud absurdity it’s worth seeking out.
The opening credits include Kiss performing their mega-hit “Rock and Roll All Nite,” but then they take a breather, absent from the movie’s incredibly long-feeling first act. California’s Magic Mountain amusement park employs a brilliant inventor with a high-tech lab; unfortunately, though, the hype around Kiss performing at the park has turned Abner Devereaux (Anthony Zerbe, who played the similarly creepy Matthias in The Omega Man) into some kind of mad doctor. Doctor Abe builds lifelike cyber robots that appear all over the park, but when a pesky employee, Sam (Terry Lester fresh from TV’s Ark II), takes a break from wooing his girlfriend, Melissa (Deborah Ryan), to asks Abe a few questions the mad man turns him into some kind of robotic zombie with a mind control switch attached to his neck. The doc then has fun messing with a trio of rowdy bikers: Chopper, Slime, and Dirty Dee, before his robots attack them. Also about every 10 minutes the screen dramatically fades to black for commercial breaks.
After getting fired for being so weird, Abe continues his destruction, sending a robot dressed like Kiss’s Gene Simmons on a nighttime rampage through the park, where he fights some dorky security guards. The next day the park owner Calvin Richards (‘70’s TV crime staple, Carmine Caridi) and the guards try to interrogate the band as they sunbathe (in full make-up and costumes). The guys crack jokes, while Gene growls. Kiss do their own late-night investigation where they (or their stunt doubles who look nothing like them) slow-motion fight Abe’s robots; after losing they are imprisoned in his lab. Robot Kiss go on to perform in their place; their song is so bad it almost leads to a Magic Mountain riot from the crowd. Using their magical powers the real Kiss manage to escape and fly to the concert, beating up the robot impostors and then putting on their own rockin’ show.
In a powerful epilogue (this would have been about 9:50pm if you were watching live at home when it originally aired, like I was), Kiss and Melissa save Sam from his mind control prison but find that Doctor Abe has turned himself into a catatonic robot or something. Kiss then perform “God of Thunder” (minus the 20-minute Peter Criss drum solo). Fade out and bed time for millions of us tots watching.
There is so much zaniness going on in Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park; most of the film centers on long, tedious, clumsy scenes of Abe at his control. The moments where Kiss perform are spectacular and their few acting scenes bring a lot of energy to the story. Kiss look amazing in their elaborate costumes but unfortunately Gene, known as the Demon, is the only member who shows any of that Kiss showmanship as an actor. Even though reverb is added to his voice, he would go on to be an effective villain in the films Runaway and Wanted: Dead or Alive, before becoming a reality TV staple; here he really does carry the acting load for the band. Lead singer Paul, nicknamed Starchild, has a heavy Queens NY accent that doesn’t match his pretty-boy make-up even when he’s shooting lasers out of his eyes. Ace’s character has the ability to jump really high, as well as a pair of laser shooting eyes, but verbally he’s mostly only given the line “ack” over and over (like a parrot). Drummer Peter, known as Cat Man, apparently spoke his lines so badly and incomprehensibly that cartoon voice-over actor Michael Bell had to dub all his dialogue (which is why if you watched cartoons in the
‘70s, like Speed Buggy, Peter sounded so familiar).
Auteur Gordon Hessler was mostly a TV director (Hawaii Five-O!) but he is credited with putting Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing together in the decent 1970 thriller Scream and Scream Again, but then he also directed one of the lamer Kolchak: The Night Stalker episodes, The Spanish Moss Murders, which had Richard Kiel as a mossy Cajun monster. With Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, Hesler is stuck more or less being a toy huckster; in some ways it’s the first kiddie infomercial. Kiss would become even less an actual band and more a mini-shopping mall of action figures, Colorforms, puzzles, comic books, sweatbands and even a pinball machine. At the time they were notorious for never being seen without their make-up on; a few years later their make-up would come off, causing them to lose their mystique and making them just another bunch of ugly long-haired guys making lousy, loud music. Though there was a European theatrical cut of the film (only significant because it added songs from their upcoming Dynasty album), it was in America on one Friday night in ’78 that Kiss dominated American homes and the imaginations of millions of kids. The TV-movie is definitely not as good as it should have been, but seeing it now it captures a moment from many of our childhoods and can provide a lot of chuckles.