Things are not going well at the Magic Mountain amusement park. The rides are constantly malfunctioning and crowds are dwindling, which hasn’t escaped the notice of park manager, Calvin Richards (Caridi), who lays the blame on the park’s chief engineer, Abner Deveraux (Zerbe); a mechanical genius when it comes to rides and animatronics, which litter the grounds, but Deveraux’s ideas on exploiting them are rather quaint and old-fashioned. He’s also been spending a ton of time and money on research and development, neglecting his other duties in the process, but claims to be close to a new breakthrough that he guarantees will revitalize the park. But Richards has heard enough and spent enough and has other ideas to shore-up his coffers, namely booking the rock band KISS for three nights of concerts, which have already sold out and spiked attendance. He has also come to the regrettable decision to give Deveraux the axe despite his years of hard work and loyal service.
Obviously, Deveraux doesn’t react to this news very well. Blaming Richards and KISS for this turn of events, he holes up in his not-so-secret laboratory, where his snoopy assistant, Sam (Lester), has been robo-lobotimzed into a witless minion. Seems Sam felt the scientist was up to something no good, confided this in his girlfriend, Melissa (Ryan), and started poking around only to get caught. When the girl comes looking for him, Deveraux distracts her with a nickel tour, revealing his new breakthrough: fully functional robots. Doctor Whacky-Doody has also been kidnapping other undesirables and hooligans from the park, frying their brains, and converting them into live-action displays. Why he just doesn’t do the same to Melissa is a bit confusing but would make for a very short movie. And besides, she is about to become an unwitting pawn in Deveraux’s mad revenge scheme, where he plans to destroy both his usurpers and the park in one fell swoop...
With a mix of old school magic show tricks, pyrotechnics, a fantastic (and highly marketable) signature look, topped with some hideously infectious tunes, KISS exploded onto the music scene in 1973 as if from another planet. Inspired by the comic books they loved while growing up all four band-members adopted an alter-ego – Star Child (Stanley), the Demon (Simmons), Space Ace (Frehley) and Cat Man (Criss) -- and seldom appeared in public out of "disguise". And as the band seemed to hit its peak in 1977, their manager, Bill Aucoin, with the band’s approval, developed a two-fold strategy to push the group to the next level of mass appeal after they made a nationwide splash on The Paul Lynde Halloween Special (1976). The first step was the simultaneous release of four solo albums (which was some much needed alone time to ease rising tensions in the group), and second, a feature film that would "cement their image as larger-than-life rock 'n' roll superheroes."
The groundwork for the film actually began as early as 1976 with some lengthy negotiations with Marvel Comics, who were looking to possibly expand with a new music fanzine. And in January, 1977, Marvel Comics Super Special #1 hit the stands, which featured background articles on KISS, the members, history and discography, and an original 40-page origin story of the group written by Steve Gerber, who was writing fan-favorite Howard the Duck at the time (the band shows up in a couple of issues there, as well, if memory serves), and illustrated by Alan Weiss, Rich Buckler and John and Sal Buscema. A wonderful piece of vintage Marvelcana, the tale begins with each member gaining their unique powers and costumes en masse via mystical totems accidentally obtained through dubious means: Star Child can shoot lasers out of his stamped eye and reads minds; the Demon has enhanced strength and can breathe hellfire; Space Ace can mass teleport; and the Cat Man has the proportional strength and agility of a feline. And then the group does battle with a couple of Marvel's heavy-hitters, Doctor Doom and Mephisto, looking to claim those powerful arcane relics for themselves. The story itself is actually kinda trippy, with a rare moment where Doom lets his guard down about his past and his parents, and would prove profoundly influential on the proposed film to come. To help promote the book, in another brilliant piece of marketing, each band-member had blood drawn to be injected into the red-ink used to print the comic, meaning they bled for their art. Now I ask you, What is more rock 'n' roll than that?
Being tops in the field at the time, teaming up with Marvel Comics was an absolute no-brainer but where Aucoin went from there is a bit of puzzler because the last production company in the world I would’ve thought of to make a KISS-based film would be Hanna-Barbera studios. For even though they made some excellent cartoons over the years (and some not so good ones), there rare live-action output made the wild world of Sid and Marty Kroft look like Olivier and the Royal Shakespeare Company. And this mix of strange bedfellows continued with the hiring of screenwriters Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday, whose only other credit was the soft-core sleaze vehicle for Cheri “Ginger” Cafaro, Too Hot to Handle (1977), and Gordon Hessler to direct, who had helmed some of Vincent Price’s lesser vehicles [The Oblong Box (1969), Cry of the Banshee (1970)] and a ton of off-the-wall telefilms [Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973), Skyway to Death (1974)] . And together, even though it was pitched to the group as A Hard Day’s Night meets Star Wars, what KISS got was shoehorned into an episode of The Monkees – or more appropriately, a Halloween episode of The Banana Splits.
Filming for Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park began in May, 1978, mostly on location at Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia, California, with additional filming in the Hollywood Hills. (In fact, I’m pretty sure the KISS-Crib was Simmons’ own mansion in Beverly Hills.) And when the band finally shows up (a full thirty minutes into the film), they do make one helluva an entrance: a kaiju-like hello, that begins with explosions in the night sky, and then ends with characters materializing out of nothing and stock sound-effects before strutting down laser beams to the stage.
After the show, Melissa spots Robo-Sam snapping reference shots of KISS at Deveraux’s behest. When Keystone Security’s finest stop her from reaching him, the band intervenes but Robo-Sam is long gone. And after Star Child scans her brain and determines Melissa isn’t lying when she relates her tale of woe, Cat Man tries to cheer her up by singing “Beth”, a great tune, and an excellent make-up ballad but thee worst cheering up song of ever.
Meanwhile, Devereaux completes work on his first KISS-bot, the Demon, who escapes and goes on a rampage, taking out several security guards and one balsa-wood refreshment stand. When the band is questioned about the attack, with the real Demon under threat of arrest, Richards pulls the plug on the internal investigation until after the last concert. Connecting the frame-up with Melissa’s story about Deveraux’s not-so-secret lab and what he’s been up to down there, that night, KISS decides to investigate by sneaking into the park, where they are confronted by an army of automatons.
And while the Super-Band fights their way through them to get to the mad scientist’s lair (well, their stuntmen, mostly, and kudos for pulling off those flips and kicks in those platform boots), Robo-Sam makes a second attempt to break into the KISS-Crib and steal the box containing the magic talismans, the source of KISS’s power (which is straight out of the Marvel comic), and this time, he succeeds and hands them over to Deveraux, who zaps them with ray-gun that, essentially, sucks all the mystical juice out, leaving KISS, currently fighting their way through the Famous Monsters of Filmland exhibit, powerless, allowing the evil scientist to suck them up into an electrified cage with a giant, four-nozzled vacuum cleaner. *whew* And with the real band out of the way, Deveraux’s master plan comes to fruition when he unleashes his duplicate KISS-bots for the last show, with orders to stir the crowd into an uncontrollable frenzy and then sic them on the park to level it completely.
Sounds exciting, right? Eh, no, not really. Now, I hadn’t seen Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park since its original Halloween broadcast in 1978. Eight year old me thought it was just great, but 44 year old me found it to be deliriously awful on a staggering scale with just a whiff of pretentiousness coming from the band, whose serious tone (except for Ace) clashes wildly with the plot they’re hammered into and fails to gel. Honestly, it felt like someone filmed the walk through and then realized they were out of film and out of time and money, turned it over to the network, and then ran for the hills. And as it turns out, that isn’t too terribly far from the truth.
While writing the script, Sherman and Buday spent time with each band member to get a feel for their characters. As the legend goes, Ace Frehley, a well-known eccentric and a full blown alcoholic, offered little except shouting an occasional “Awk!” at them. Deciding he would make a great Intergalactic Harpo Marx, then, Space Ace had no dialogue in the finished shooting script – except for the “Awks!”, which had to be changed on the run when the novice actor threatened to walk. There are a few unsubstantiated rumors that network censors brought the hammer down on the finished script, which resulted in it being watered down to the more juvenile-leaning end result. And if the film has one real and true fatal flaw, it’s that it didn’t abandon any pretension toward seriousness and failed to let their stars in on the fact that they were now shooting for straight-up camp.
None of the band had any acting experience, or a shooting script, apparently, as the writers scrambled and constantly re-adjusted to network demands, resulting in many scenes where KISS was brought to the set, told what to say and where to go, and that was it before the camera rolled. Apparently, most of the production was that rushed, with the script in constant flux, and nobody knew how the film was destined to end. But it did end, rather inexplicably, with Devereaux vanquished. How? Who the hell knows. All we know is that he created KISS to destroy KISS and he lost when the Super-Band engineers an escape, crashes the concert, engages in a final Big Battle with their doppelgängers, win, and then sooth the rabid crowd. They also manage to restore Robo-Sam to just plain Sam, and find Devereaux dead. I think. How? Again, who the hell knows. Movie’s over, folks, nothing more to see here.
If this goof of a film has one redeeming quality it is the work of Anthony Zerbe as the maniacal villain; and the well-regarded character actor does his best to elevate everyone around him. (He also appears to be having a ball. And Freex? He does indeed sound like he’s doing a Hans Conreid impersonation.) As for his co-stars, well, they were extremely frustrated by the experience and it shows. Things got so bad with all the changes and the constant hurry up and waiting during the troubled production that Frehley finally said to hell with it and either stormed off the set or often failed to show up for his scenes, pressing his stunt-man into double-duty as a stand-in. (Even on top of their different skin color, it’s very easy to play Ace-Not Ace, which makes for a fine drinking game.) And Criss wound up being dubbed by voice-over specialist Michael Bell in most of his scenes when he refused to show up for the looping sessions.
After its initial broadcast, AVCO-Embassy released a theatrical version of the film for the international market as KISS: Attack of the Phantoms. And I believe that altered version is what I watched via YouTube. (Some Hoyt Curtin stock incidental music was changed and I recall a lot more ‘Awking’ from Ace.] The original broadcast version did garner a home video release on VHS and I know there was an attempt at a DVD but this was quickly pulled over some rights issues and now appears to be stuck in a legal quagmire that it may never see the (legal) light of day again, which I’m sure suits the band just fine.
Before their resurgence in the 1990s, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Fun Park sadly served as the zenith of KISS’s initial surge. After, a combination of creative differences and substance abuse found the band splitting up by 1982, with Criss and Frehley going their separate ways. Stanley and Simmons kept it together, even unmasking for a while but it just wasn’t the same. Thankfully, that has since been rectified. As for their only feature film, well, the band’s attitude toward it has softened a bit in the intervening *gack* 40 years since its broadcast. Make no mistake, it’s a mess and it is terrible but it is also a highly entertaining excursion in good intentions, wrong-headed thinking, and rock ‘n’ roll gone awry.
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KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) Aucoin Productions :: Hanna-Barbera / National Broadcasting Company (NBC) / EP: William M. Aucoin, Joseph Barbera / P: Terry Morse Jr. / D: Gordon Hessler / W: Jan-Michael Sherman, Don Buday / C: Robert Caramico / E: Peter E. Berger / M: Hoyt Curtin / S: Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Anthony Zerbe, Carmine Caridi, Deborah Ryan, Terry Lester