Every now and then, a
reviewer comes across a film that causes him to ask, Am I truly qualified
to judge this film? You know, like Gene Shalit at Eraserhead.
Michael Medved at Blood Diner. Roger Ebert at... well, anything.
This was the problem I faced with KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
I was never a KISS fan. I found their hits listenable enough, it
was just... I dunno. Perhaps, with the outrageousness of their makeup
and costumes, I was expecting their music to be more than just straight-ahead,
middle of the road rock. Something more edgy, like White Zombie or Nine
Inch Nails turns out these days.
So the Doctor fortified
himself by calling on a cadre of thirty-low-somethings, who had actually
owned the albums at one time or another, and seated them betwixt himself
and the TV, so they would catch any stray shrapnel. To safeguard any
dignity they might wish to maintain, we shall refer to them simply as
Dave, Mrs. Dave, and Alan. Dave remembered nothing about the film except
that KISS was in it, and there was a Phantom, and at some point, they
met. Alan stated he had seen the film several times before, but this
was the first time he would attempt it while sober. The things we do
The Park in question
is, economically enough, Six Flags Magic Mountain. The Phantom in question
is Abner Devereaux, played by Anthony Zerbe, who seems, much of the
time, to be attempting
a Hans Conreid imitation. Zerbe has engineered most of the rides and
all of the robotic creations at the park, and is dead set against the
intrusion of modern unpleasantness into his domain. The epitome of such
unpleasantness, he feels, is the booking of KISS for three nights of
concerts (isn't playing at theme parks reserved for 20-years-later reunion
tours, like the Monkees?). Zerbe's partner plans to oust the unprofitable
scientist, causing Zerbe to swear undying vengeance (or something),
against the capitalist, and especially against that accursed rock group!
(Zerbe can now legitimately be called the Phantom of the Park, as the
setup is lifted from the Claude Reins and Herbert Lom Phantom of
the Operas, the versions with which most people are familiar)
There is a back story
somewhere in there about Sam and Melissa. These are our lovers, the
sympathetic characters for whom we must root. I have rooted more for
mannequins at JC Penney, who show much more of an emotional range. Sam
works for the park, and suspects Something Is Up. "There's something
I don't understand," he tells her, speaking for the audience. "I'm
going to go check it out." He does, and winds up with a diode on
his neck (on loan, no doubt, from Zontar,
Thing from Venus), which makes him Zerbe's zombie henchman.
This is a fate met by anyone Zerbe does not want in his park, such as
a trio of punks named Chopper, Slime, and Chick Who Didn't Get A Nickname,
who wind up as robots in an American Revolution display.
now search for the missing Sam. All this exposition pads the story out
to its initial half- hour, with people helpfully mentioning KISS every
few minutes so you can remember why you're watching. It was during this
part that Mrs. Dave went to sleep for the first time, which is not a
very good sign*. (and do you, like I, feel
that everytime I must spell out the groups name as KISS, that I am suddenly
shouting? You ain't seen nothin' yet.)
When the concert begins and KISS
finally appears, they do it in a welter of cheap effects that would
make King Ghidorah proud*.
They float in, shooting rays from their eyes
and fingers. You see, KISS are not merely rock musicians, oh no. They
have Mystic Talismans, which grant each of them powers (stop me if I'm
wrong, but isn't that the setup from the KISS comic book, released about
the same time?). Gene Simmons, the Demon, can breathe fire and speak
with a reverb. Paul Stanley, the Starchild, can shoot cheap rays out
of his eyes. Ace Frehley, Space Ace, can teleport. And Peter Criss,
the Catman, can, uh..... uh.... well, as far as I can tell, he
has the power to make lame cat-related puns.
Kiss takes pity on Melissa,
and take her under their, um, wing. Late that night, Zerbe tries out
new Gene Simmons robot, which kicks the collective butt of several security
guards, and demolishes a Styrofoam wall and a Corn Dog stand made of
FomeCore. The Park Capitalist and Head Rent-A-Cop confront KISS
the next day as the band suns themselves by the pool .... in full makeup
... and hooded, silver mesh robes. Perhaps they forgot their sunscreen.
Still unable to find
Sam, KISS tries to cheer Melissa up by singing their hit "Beth",
a paean to guys who stay out all night with the boys and the women who
wait at home, doubtless planning to leave their asses. The Zombie Sam
tries to steal the Magic Talismans (or is that Talismen?), but
is stopped by a convenient force field. KISS senses a tremor in the
Force, but, being professionals, they finish the song, even though Melissa
has gotten thoroughly depressed and wandered off. This allows her to
bump into Zombie Sam, and she, too, finally figures out Something is
KISS swings into action, as it were,
and breaks into the park after hours by flying over the fence (couldn't
Ace have teleported them in?). Zerbe retaliates by sending wave after
wave of masked stuntmen.... I'm sorry, robotic assassins ... after them,
resulting in some not-terribly exciting fight scenes. Let's face it,
it's hard to fight, let alone run, in platform boots. However, kudos
are due to Ace's stunt double for doing some impressive flips with the
damn things on. It was during the first big fight scene that we lost
Mrs. Dave for the second time. Nodding off during a fight scene is definitely
a bad sign.
The Zombie Sam goes back
to KISS' apartment with a Zerbe Gun, which thwarts the force field,
the Mad Scientist/Phantom/Classical Music Lover to cut off the plucky
band's power, making them ripe for capture. He then substitutes his
robot KISS for the real thing, planning to use cleverly re-written lyrics
to incite the crowd to riot and destroy the park. Why? Because he's
Well, of course the real
KISS escapes, makes short work of the Evil Robot KISS (in a fight that
had Dave asking, "Why don't the KISS robots look like KISS anymore?
Wait a minute.... why doesn't KISS look like KISS anymore?").
Sam is released from Zombie-hood, and Zerbe is either made very old
or dead or comatose or SOME DAMNED THING, as the Capitalist opines,
"He created KISS to destroy KISS... and he lost." This statement
alone beats anything Jodorowsky ever did for out and out huh?ness.
Actually, you should
know you're in trouble with KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park right
at the beginning , when you discover it is a Hanna-Barbera Production.
Older readers (and Cartoon Network subscribers) will recall HB's earlier
live-action opus, the serial Danger Island, starring a young
Jan-Michael Vincent and directed by none other than Richard Donner.
Neither could save it. At least KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park
is unmarred by speeded-up fight scenes (or speeded-up anything,
for that matter). Hanna Barbera has supplied with us with of the best
(and, admittedly, some of the worst) cartoons of my generation. And
some of the most wretched live action.
It's hard to compare
this to any other rock-group film. Unlike Magical Mystery Tour or
200 Motels, which were basically Home Movies On Acid, KISS
Meets the Phantom of the Park not only tries to tell a story, but
elevates its subjects to Beings of Godlike Power. Dave jokingly refers
to this as "KISS' Help!", and there are disturbing
similarities. The "Beth" scene in particular, is highly reminiscent
of the scene in Help! where the Beatles, pursued by death cultists,
decide to stop and, apropos of nothing, sing "You've Got To Hide
Your Love Away". In fact, to paraphrase MST3K, KISS Meets
the Phantom of the Park is just like Help!, only it isn't
Of the band members,
it is obvious why Gene was the only one who had anything approaching
a career in movies afterward. Special mention must be made of the truly
horrific performance of Ace Frehley, who not only has a high-pitched
girly voice, but persists in shrieking "Awk!" at inopportune
moments, like a molested peacock. At least he makes Peter and Paul look...
well, not exactly good, but less bad, by comparison.
An odd side-note: the
incidental music in the film is not hard rock oriented, not even the
fight scenes, which might have benefited from a KISS tune or two - no,
it is 1978, so the music is some prime example of 70's cop show fare,
courtesy of the ubiquitous Hoyt Curtin. Go, Hoyt, Go! It's a bit of
an odd choice, in retrospect, but not an odious one. It is a part of
the movie's miniscule charm, next to the hairstyles: it is such a product
of its time. I must also confess, with some chagrin, that I now cannot
get the song "Beth" out of my head. And I have tried. Strenuously.
I shall go out on a limb
here, and make a prediction: it seems to take about 25 years for these
things to take hold, so come the Millennium,
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park will take its place alongside
Plan 9 From Outer Space and Robot Monster as a Bad Movie
For Which We All Have A Soft Spot. All it needs is a new generation
that did not Own The T-Shirt to view it in its proper perspective.