TO ROUND off Halloween Month after the hangovers disperse, Dan takes a look at one of the most patently ill-advised ventures in rock history: KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
OF ALL DECADES, the 70s championed the proliferation of extravagant rockstar egotrips the furthest. Buffeted by acts like Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and The Who, indulgence and excess were bywords for some of the most ridiculous, insane and drug-fuelled cavalcades in music history. Somewhere in the middle of this was KISS. Unabashedly commercialised, awash with phony mystery, the band rode the waves of adoring teenagers who dug their harmless pledge to rock ‘n’ roll all nite. Reportedly earning $10 million in 1977 from tours, albums and pinball machines, manager Bill Aucoin decided the next natural step would be for the band to star in a movie.
It worked for The Beatles, right? But whereas A Hard Day’s Night starred charismatic performers, a talented director and an improvisatory script that worked to the band’s strengths, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (or Attack of the Phantoms in Europe) is a cheap and cheerless imitation of what this kind of movie is meant to be: camp, laugh-along daftness. What we get instead is 90 minutes of almost relentless tedium with flashes of pristine, spit-take glory, all produced by the brains behind Scooby Doo, Hanna-Barbera. I once said Phantom’s day was coming: This is that day.
Set in a rather industrial-looking theme park populated entirely by vacant-eyed tweens in KISS make-up, Phantom revolves around a genius inventor/”mad scientist” named Abner Devereaux (Anthony Zerbe), whose research(?) into animatronic bio-droids is slashed by the park’s owner, Calvin Richards (Carmine Caridi), who is channelling his funds into a KISS concert instead. Distraught, Devereaux seeks to disrupt the concert by converting people into automatons, cloning KISS and inciting fans to spark a riot, destroying the park and wreaking bloody vengeance on Richards.
KISS are around, somewhere. They’re superheroes, apparently, given their ability to fire space lasers from their eyes (Ace Frehley), breathe fire at whim (Gene Simmons), read minds (Paul Stanley) and… jump really high (Peter Criss). Following their holographic introductions interposed over anonymous park-goers on a rollercoaster, KISS do not appear in the film named after them for 27 minutes. In their absence, we inexplicably follow three different sub-plots on top of Devereaux’s arc, including the abduction of three streetpunks who are never seen again.
When they finally do return, their rousing rendition of ‘Shout it Out Loud’ is hilariously cut mid-chorus. Presumably, the editor felt it more important to see what Devereaux was getting up to in his basement lab: Fiddling about with his animatronics, making what looks like Admiral Nelson stick his tongue out. Vital. This sets a precedent for the film as a whole.
Aside from being filmed at almost exclusively flat angles, Phantom’s editing is trigger-happy, cutting at almost random integers in what must have been a deeply experimental approach to filmmaking (or a cut-price botch job, either or). Following that entirely pointless scene, for instance, it cuts immediately back to KISS in concert! Almost as if the film is acknowledging its meaninglessness.
KISS, for their part, as much as they’re playing up to the cameras, do seem like a dynamic and involving live act, making it all the more baffling why they didn’t merely settle for a concert film like The Last Waltz, or a hybrid of film and concert like Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. Zeppelin’s effort consisted of indulgent fantasy sequences intercut with live performances; it would probably have suited KISS’ fantastical personas better to have done similar, already owing much of their sound, glittery stage attire and even fanbase to Zeppelin’s example.
It’s not even a question of commercial viability, which was and always has been the band’s chief concern. The Song Remains the Same and The Last Waltz, despite their differing approaches, were both relative hits, and the KISS brand was at its height. Why not film the final shows of a tour, hack the best bits together and call it KISS: A Live Destroyer! or something? This transformation into superheroes – albeit one prefaced by the Marvel comic KISS did in 1977 – is a bizarre stroke of madcap genius worthy of Devereaux himself.
But A Hard Day’s Night prevailed, and it turns out – to the surprise of no one – that KISS’ acting chops are as hopeless as one might expect. Night was reliant on The Beatles playing off each other, their quick-paced dialogue rattling through a narrative that made absolutely no sense on inspection; KISS, meanwhile, are leaden, repeatedly calling into attention the absurdity of the scenario by their utter lack of chemistry. Ace Frehley’s repeated insistence on yelling “Ack!” is strange enough, but Paul Stanley’s hysterical attempts to deliver lines like, “You’re looking for someone, but it’s not KISS,” are so flat as to prompt disbelief. And then Gene Simmons roars like a lion.
And then they all trampoline-fight with silver-onesied apemen. And then Simmons crab-walks in his 12-inch platform heels toward a pair of cops, one of whom is Leon from Blade Runner (a horrendous Brion James). And then KISS fight Clone KISS onstage, using their guitars as reflective shields from eye-lasers. A traditional review cannot contain the vaulting levels of what-the-fuck that Phantom offers; it can only reiterate, in questioning terms, how insane this whole venture is.
But it was insanity born from profiteering eyes, and one that both signified the peak and foretold the fall of KISS’ popularity. Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, both combating substance abuse, were largely AWOL during the production, dissatisfied with long and tedious shoots. The resulting tension prompted the band to make four ill-advised solo albums, ultimately culminating with Frehley and Criss getting booted and the brand being restocked with new faces in the same make-up. Mention of the film was forbidden in their presence. Then Music From ‘The Elder’ happened, but we’ve covered that.
Really, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park is such an obvious moment of madness that it defies summation. It’s a wretched sitting experience; even when peppered with scenes of aforementioned joy, the rest is aimlessly dull, plodding along with too many characters and too many sub-plots, haphazardly linked together by a fucking KISS concert. Despite this fact, it’s still a weirdly charming piece of shit that, for all its inadequacy, snapshots a strange point in time when KISS were one of the biggest bands in the world. Forget it, Jake – it’s the 70s.