“A Hard Day’s Night meets Star Wars”: this is how Bill Aucoin, manager of Kiss, pitched the t.v. film Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park to the band. What they ended up with made no one happy: the band hated it, their fans thought it was a joke and people already predisposed to disliking the band considered it to be concrete evidence that Kiss was little more than a kiddie act (it didn’t help that the film was produced by t.v. cartoon kingpins Hanna-Barbera). All that said, the film’s bizarre collision of hard rock, cartoon show plotting and schlocky horror and sci-fi elements has made it a camp classic.
The plot was concocted by Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday, writers of the Cheri Caffaro vehicle Too Hot To Handle, and is set at an amusement park that will be the site of a Kiss concert. Abner Devereaux (Anthony Zerbe), creator of the park’s animatronic amusements, resents the band’s presence as he feels it detracts from his work. When the park’s owner (Carmine Caridi) encourages him to take a sabbatical, Devereaux quits and decides to take revenge.
Devereaux has developed a way to turn humans into computer-controlled slaves as well as the ability to create animatronic clones and he uses these abilities to attack Kiss. He doesn’t know that Kiss are actually superheroes who draw special powers from a set of pendants (an idea lifted from a Kiss comic book released by Marvel in 1976). This sets the stage for a finale where Kiss have to take on a variety of Devereaux’s creations en route to a concert.
Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park fell short of the hopes of the band’s fans for many reasons. The first is that the storyline is a pile of clichés pandering the lowest common denominator: the characters are all cardboard, the plotting feels like a recycled Scooby Doo plot and the entire project’s vibe is that of a kid movie aimed at the dopiest, most easily amused members of the audience. There’s no edge and nothing clever about it. It’s also got a really cheap vibe to it: despite having a generous-for-t.v. budget, it’s got subpar visual effects, a number of dramatic scenes that were rushed through in a one-take/one camera setup style and plentiful obvious gaffes like the stuntman who doubles for Ace Frehley clearly being an African-American man with poorly applied makeup.
It doesn’t help that Kiss are basically guest stars in their own project. In fairness to the filmmakers, Kiss were not ready to be actors and weren’t willing to put in the work. They had to be fed their lines before takes and when Peter Criss didn’t show up to the looping sessions during post-production, his performance was dubbed entirely by cartoon voice actor Michael Bell. Thus, the moments where they have to deliver dialogue are stiff and awkward: Paul Stanley sounds like he has a head cold and Gene Simmons hams it up like a silent movie actor as his voice is drenched in weird echo effects. Frehley, cracking wise and bemused by the whole process, is the only who seems natural (trivia: his character was originally written as a Harpo Marx-style mute and he only got dialogue after he threatened to quit).
That said, if you can roll with the lazy, often inept vibe of the project, there is a decent amount of camp amusement to be had here. Schlockmania’s advice to track down the foreign theatrical version also known as Attack Of The Phantoms. It was given a formal release by Kiss as part of their Kisstory 3 DVD set and is better than the t.v. version on a few key fronts. For starters, it was trimmed by ten minutes and thus has a snappier pace. The image is also framed for a 2.35:1 ratio and looks much more cinematic. Best of all, it throws out a lot of the cartoony-sounding score by Hanna Barbera stalwart Hoyt Curtain and replaces it with a variety of choice cuts from Kiss circa 1976-1977 as well as multiple cuts from the members’ underrated 1978 solo albums.
The Attack Of The Phantoms re-edit offers a certain amount of low-road fun for Kiss diehards. As the villain, reliable character actor Zerbe gives a performance of operatic hamminess that brings a jolt of energy to the cornball proceedings. Director Gordon Hessler is a long way from the glory days of Scream And Scream Again but he offsets the cheap feel of the film with the occasional well-crafted setpiece like the clone version of Gene taking out a gang of security guards like The Hulk (set to the tune of Gene’s solo tune “Radioactive”) and a fun bit where some dopey gang members are dispatched by Devereaux’s traps in a ‘chamber of horrors’ attraction.
Most importantly, the third act delivers a payoff that raises the proceedings to camp classic level. Kiss must fight an array of Devereaux-created baddies including albino gorilla robots, Samurai warriors and finally a group of animatronic Kiss doubles who try to rouse the concert crowd to a riot by doing a song called “Rip And Destroy” (“Hotter Than Hell” with rewritten lyrics). Again, the use of Kiss and related solo recordings in the Attack Of The Phantoms version really enhances the fun: seeing Kiss fight a group of albino gorilla robots as Ace’s version of “New York Groove” throbs on the soundtrack is a moment of schlock that is transcendent in its purity.
In retrospect, Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park can viewed as the beginning of the end for Kiss’s dreams of rock world dominance. They’d begin a long, slow slide into irrelevance until they dropped the makeup in 1983, slowly rebuilding their lost fortunes and credibility until the original quartet’s 1996 reunion tour. This film was the canary in the coalmine for that slow fade but today it can viewed as an amusing camp relic, particularly in its Attack Of The Phantoms version. Consider it Kiss’s single-film equivalent to the string of bad but oddly amusing movies that Elvis Presley made.