"KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park" (1978) Movie Review

VHS box cover
VHS box cover | Source

KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) - Directed by Gordon Hessler

Welcome once again to "It Came From the Bargain Bin," the 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 diehard rock 'n' roller - KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, the 1978 pseudo-classic made-for-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 special effects, a ridiculous plot, out-to-lunch scripting and uniformly terrible perfomances, all slathered in a shiny layer of glorious low budget made-for-'70s-TV Cheez Whiz.

Phantom probably seemed like a sure-fire 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 baddies were silly as hell, but they broke sales records for Marvel, so the KISS camp decided that a "KISS as superheroes" film was the logical next step. A deal was quickly struck with Hanna-Barbera Productions (yes, 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 their rush to get the project on the air in time for the Halloween season, it would appear that no one at NBC or Hanna-Barbera bothered to worry about such unimportant details as a coherent script, or whether or not 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 over thirty years.

The Plot (Such as it is...)

The opening credits of KISS Meets the Phantom look more like 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 totally slumming Anthony Zerbe of Papillon and The Omega Man fame), the eccentric creator of the park's lifelike cybernetic robots and mechanical attractions. Abner's ticked off that Calvin is 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 management doesn't know 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 regret watching this movie."

Trailer:

Two possible captions for this photo: "Abner Devareaux thinking 'I Hate KISS,'" or "Anthony Zerbe thinking 'I hate my agent for getting me into this movie.'"
Two possible captions for this photo: "Abner Devareaux thinking 'I Hate KISS,'" or "Anthony Zerbe thinking 'I hate my agent for getting me into this movie.'" | Source

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 Devareux's laboratory. When Sam mysteriously disappears (we already know he's become one of Devareux's android zombies ), Melissa gets a quick brush-off from old Abner while searching for him, 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 their way-cool set of 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, Devareux quickly whips up a set of four cybernetic KISS duplicates, starting with The Demon, who vandalizes some 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 Devareux's robot werewolves (?) beneath the roller coaster before they're captured in the horror themed funhouse. With the real band locked away in his secret underground laboratory, Devareux 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. Thus, the stage is set for an earth shattering climax, as KISS escapes from the mad scientist's clutches and appears onstage to fight it out with the robots and settle who's the real KISS once and for all. "There can BE only one!" ...oops, sorry, wrong movie.

KISS' totally bitchin' Talisman Set!
KISS' totally bitchin' Talisman Set! | Source

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, "How did we get here? They told us that this would be a combination of A Hard Day's Night and Star Wars!" Perhaps the most insulting thing of all is the music. You'd think a KISS movie would be packed wall to wall with KISS tunes, but aside from the brief concert scenes which provide the movie's few highlights, the soundtrack to KISS Meets the Phantom is made up of hilariously 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!

Columbian poster for the theatrical release of "KISS Meets the Phantom."
Columbian poster for the theatrical release of "KISS Meets the Phantom." | Source

"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.

Despite all the behind the scenes drama, 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 turned out to be NBC's second highest rated program of that season (bested only by a mini-series based on James Clavell's best seller Shogun), but it did irreparable damage to the band's already-shaky reputation. Quickly denounced as "kid stuff" by the fans, the film certainly aggravated the internal tensions that had been building between the four band members for some time. The relationship between Criss, Frehley, Simmons and Stanley was already troubled before they even started shooting Phantom, and by the end of it they could barely stand to be in the same room with one another. Frehley and Criss both expressed their desire to quit KISS and embark on solo careers during their 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 that 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 for the breakup of the original foursome, but it certainly didn't help!

For much 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's also spoken of "wanting to crawl under his seat and hide" during the movie's Hollywood premiere.

The Aftermath...

The band remained embarrassed by the whole Phantom debacle for several decades, but in recent years they seem to have finally 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, as part of 2007's 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 good 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 genre-film Bible Fangoria to remember Hessler, calling him 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."

More than 35 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 seen it once, you're a casual KISS fan. If you've seen it two or three times, you're a pretty big KISS 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. KISS' appearance in that movie is little more than a glorified cameo, but at least the film is actually entertaining. Rip, rip, rip and destroy!!

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Comments 24 comments

Skeelo profile image

Skeelo 5 years ago from Scotland

This movie sounds horrible. I must have it. I'm not even the biggest KISS fan but this might make them gods in my eyes.


theJOKERiv profile image

theJOKERiv 5 years ago

Nice write up! Don't forget about the parts when Ace left to go get coked up and they replaced Ace with his stunt double in the fight scene and his stunt double happens to be African-American and you can tell even in Ace's make up. The version on Kissology isn't As bad, but it has way too much from Peter's solo album for my tastes!


A.A. Zavala profile image

A.A. Zavala 5 years ago from Texas

The movie was awful! Beginning of the end for an icon. Such a shame, they were so cool...


marek504 profile image

marek504 5 years ago from California

Was a huge kiss fan growing up. I understand that Ace was almost always drinking and had to be replaced by a stunt man in many of the scenes.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx for the comments y'all!

@ Joker - what makes it funnier is that Ace's stunt double is about twice Ace's size so he's easily noticeable... haha


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

@ Skeelo - you need to see this movie at least once before you die.

@ A.A. and Marek - I'm a huge KISS fan too, if nothing else I suppose the reaction to this film proved that the patience of the KISS Army did indeed have a limit, haha. When this movie came along that's when they went "ENOUGH!"


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

Whoops, dang double post.


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 5 years ago from North Carolina

Wonder if they got any script ideas from Phantom of the Paradise? Awesome stinker to hub on Freddy. Don't mean to dis any fans but this thing goes to prove KISS was abusiness proposition from the get go and the bottom-line was always the main concern.


Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 5 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Ah, I was waiting for this one. What a classic piece of movie-cheese. I watched this on TV when it first debuted, at even at 13 years old, I knew a stinker when I saw one. After having seen films from the Beatles and the Monkees, I expected something entertaining, especially with the added attraction of the gang having super powers. But this wasn't even on the level of Hanna-Barbara stuff like "Space Ghost" or "the Herculoids".

Actually, come to think of it, it's the kind of thing the Sy-Fy channel would make today.

I hope Kiss got paid well to embarrass themselves in front of the whole world like that.

Funny, well-done revew,

Rob


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State Author

@ Alastar - if they'd borrowed ideas from "Phantom of the Paradise" perhaps the film would've been more watchable! Haha.

@ Robwrite - I dunno, I think even the SyFy Channel would pass on this one if were made today. "We're sorry fellas, Mega Sharks and Crocosauruses are one thing, but a super powered KISS is too ridiculous, even for us."

Thanks for stoppin' by, fellas.


mannyalice 5 years ago

The stunt double for Ace is not only taller but also African American, which Paul Stanley gleefully pointed out in the commentary section of KISSOLOGY series


CarltheCritic1291 profile image

CarltheCritic1291 4 years ago

lol, I remember getting a request to do this movie. At first I thought it was a joke until I saw on IMDb that it wasn't. I decided to skip on this one because apparently it was so bad, that KISS wants to make sure no one sees it (the same way George Lucas doesn't want us to see the infamous "Star Wars Holiday Special".) Great Hub as always, voted Up, Useful, Funny, Awesome, and Interesting.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 4 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx Carl - I'd say that unless you're a diehard KISS fan (guilty), there's really no sane reason to subject yourself to this movie.


tschaunerb profile image

tschaunerb 4 years ago from Medicine Hat

GOLDEN! i want this movie.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 4 years ago from The Garden State Author

Thanx tschaunerb - I know, how could anybody NOT want to own this masterwork after viewing those YouTube clips? (Haha). As I said, it's available on DVD in one of the KISSology video box sets, or you can usually find used VHS copies via eBay or Amazon fairly cheap.


theJOKERiv profile image

theJOKERiv 4 years ago

The original US cut is even cheesier than the one on the DVD


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 4 years ago from The Garden State Author

So I've heard, Joker... and that's the version I own! I still have my old VHS tape from back in the day.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Updated!!


BlackDiamondCheeshead 3 years ago

I love this movie! Try to find the 2005 Cheezyflicks release on DVD - it's the original U.S. TV version, not the European release you find on the Kissology DVD...

The Cheezyflicks release is rare, because the Kiss legal team shut down production quickly, but it's out there.

Grab some popcorn and enjoy!


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 3 years ago from The Garden State Author

Hi, BDC - I remember the controversy surrounding the Cheezyflicks DVD version, the KISS camp smacked it down very shortly after its release so I never did get my hands on a copy. :( Fortunately I still have my vintage VHS copy on the famed Goodtimes Home Video label, that should tide me over...haha. Thanks for the comment.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

Updated with a brief blurb about the recent passing of director Gordon Hessler.


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 2 years ago from The Garden State Author

Updated


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 23 months ago from The Garden State Author

Updated


FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 6 months ago from The Garden State Author

Updated!

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    FatFreddysCat profile image

    Keith Abt (FatFreddysCat)509 Followers
    166 Articles

    I've been a KISS fan since '77, seen them live numerous times (in and out of makeup) and I'm a veteran of the KISS Expo/Convention scene.



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