in The Vault

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)

Tomorrow, the entire Mildly Pleased staff is seeing Kiss on what has been sold as their final tour ever. I couldn’t be more excited. Yet if you asked me how I felt about Kiss I would also be the first person to tell you they suck. Call it a guilty pleasure but despite all of the shitty things about Kiss—the egos, the greed, the Kiss Casket—I love their theatricality and more importantly their music. Few acts in the annals of rock have so successfully merged pop songwriting with heavy metal. Fewer have done it while wearing capes and breathing fire.

I remember being a kid and seeing Todd McFarlane’s Kiss Psycho Circus action figures at Toys ‘R Us and thinking “Wow, those are cool! I want those!” Keep in mind I barely knew who they were. But there was a demon guy with a long tongue and a Spaceman. Growing up a huge Power Rangers fan I loved superhero teams with color-coded costumes and individual specialties. When I learned Kiss had a lot of fans that were kids in the late ‘70s it all clicked. Kids loved Kiss because they were superheroes.

As I got older I got into hard rock music and those two interests merged into becoming a Kiss fan. Yeah, Kiss lyrics are bad, the guys in the band are jerks but damn if they don’t know how to throw a party. I preface today’s review with all of this so you know I am a fan and not someone who decided it would be funny to shit on Kiss for fun. I mean it is fun, but I would have loved to watch this movie and find out I actually liked it. How cool it would be to see my love of Power Rangers and hard rock come together in a ninety-minute romp with robots and rollercoasters? Unfortunately, this is not fun. This might be the least fun thing Kiss ever did.

The year is 1978, the height of Kissmania. The band had lunch boxes, dolls, even a comic book from Marvel comics. They had released four platinum albums in less than two years and if that wasn’t enough four solo albums for each member of the band in September of ’78. Then, a month later they dropped the heaping pile that is Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park on NBC one gloomy Saturday Night.

The “film” opens with Kiss overlayed or green screened, or however, they did it back then, over footage of Six Flags Magic Mountain (where they shot the rest of the film) playing “Rock & Roll All Nite”. The effect is little iffy. I could swear there was a frame or two where there was a splotch of something not keyed out. This might also be the reason Peter Criss is playing “air drums” instead of a kit. Too much work. That being said it’s a fun sequence. Too bad we won’t see the band again for almost twenty minutes.

We shift focus to a cranky scientist, Devereaux, played by Anthony Zerbe of Omega Man fame. Devereaux builds animatronic attractions for the park but feels betrayed when the park owner Mr. Richards (Carmine Caridi) decides to shift the park’s attention to an upcoming residency from the rock band Kiss. The park owner explains that Deveraux’s mechanical people haven’t been drawing in enough customers.

Do theme parks really have on-site scientists? I would get it if Devereaux was just a technician but the dude has his own evil laboratory in the park. Does every Chuck E. Cheese have a mad scientist in a back room somewhere trying to perfect the ultimate robot? It’s not like we ever get a sense of what Devereaux wants to do with these robots either. It’s not like he’s putting them to much use by having them scare teens in the spook house. What’s his plan exactly?

Next, we meet Melissa (Deborah Ryan) wandering around the park looking for her boyfriend Sam (Terry Lester). Melissa looks longingly at other couples as sad music plays which feels like bizarre filler (something this film has in spades). We cut to Sam wandering around the park and entering Devereaux’s laboratory and watch him fall through a trap door. Cut back to Melissa where she asks people at the park if they’ve seen Sam. She says he works there but she can’t find him. Woah, slow down.

If Sam worked at the theme park why was he wandering around the park like he had no idea where he was going? What does he do at the park? Why is it important for him to be a park employee at all? Why does Melissa need to find him so desperately if he’s supposed to be working anyways? While watching this film I found myself constantly going back to make sure I hadn’t missed a scene or a line to clarify the situation. The events play out in seemingly random order and plot decisions feel so arbitrary.

Anyways, Melissa finds Devereaux who says he hasn’t seen Sam only for Sam to be revealed after Melissa leaves. I figured this was a robot Sam, as robots are Devereaux’s specialty, but it’s actually Sam with a mind control device. Wow, mind control? That seems like a way better venture than carnival robots. Meanwhile, a bunch of shitty teens are attacked by robots in the spook house which leads to Devereaux’s firing. Jesus, do we really need to see Deveraux’s entire origin story? Where’s my Kiss?

Thus far, the film has played out like a reverse Scooby-Doo! episode. Which is ironic considering the film was a produced by who else but Hanna-Barbera. But imagine if on Scooby-Doo! we followed the crooked real estate developer and then why he decided to haunt the piece of property he’s trying to sell. There’s no reason a film about Kiss needs so much time devoted to explaining the motivations of the villain. It would make a lot more sense to have the episode play out like a normal Scooby-Doo! where the band helps Melissa solve the mystery of her missing boyfriend and then we find out about Devereaux at the end.

Almost twentysomething minutes in we finally see Kiss take the stage and perform “Shout it Out Loud” for the park guests. Again, it’s fun to watch Kiss perform. What’s not fun is to watch them do anything else. During the show Melissa sees Sam taking pictures and becomes hysteric. She somehow crosses paths with the band after their set and the following exchange happens. I should mention before I forget that the band is referred to by their nicknames; Star Child, Space Ace, Cat Man, and the Demon.

Star Child: You’re looking for someone, but it’s not Kiss.
Melissa: Yes. My fiance, Sam. He was taking pictures of you.
Head of Security: There are dozens of photographers out there. How could anyone ever…?
Star Child: [Paul raises his hand to cut him off] He was here.
Head of Security: This is ridiculous.
The Demon: [Growls with a shitty effect over it.]
Star Child: Sam’s still in the park.

This is our first character interaction with Kiss and they act like bizarre psychic aliens. No attempt is made to make Kiss likable or relatable. They do make crappy jokes here and there (mostly Ace) but for the most part they are soulless beings who are also for some reason magical. This is not encouraging for the rest of the film.

Defeated, Melissa wanders the empty park after the show. I guess this place never closes. She runs into Kiss again playing the Peter Criss I mean “Cat Man” ballad “Beth” by a fountain. This might have made sense had they named Melissa “Beth” but they didn’t. It’s also weird considering it’s Cat Man singing and Star Child playing acoustic guitar while the other two stand around doing nothing. They got to shoe-horn that hit song in there somewhere though, right?

Kiss gives Melissa words of encouragement but refuses to help her because they are emotionless monsters. Melissa meets with Devereaux again (wouldn’t they have kicked him out of the park after he was fired?) who gives her a pass for the park (which turns out to be a monitoring chip) and then we meet up with evil Sam who infiltrates Kiss’ lair. Sam finds a red box that contains Kiss’ talismans that contain their magic powers. This is getting weird. Sam is unsuccessful in stealing the enchanted talismans and leaves. Afterward, he runs into Melissa who runs up to hug and kiss him. Only to have her back off and scream. She says something to the effect that she screamed because she touched him and that he’s not the Sam she remembers. Again, why is he not a robot? It would make so much more sense.

I feel the need to stop for a minute and point out that I have no idea if any of the last few scenes I described happen in the order I wrote about them. This film seems to defy all sense of logic and structure. So bear with me as I try to finish summarizing this movie.

So we learn that Evil Sam was taking photos so that Devereaux could make robot clones of Kiss and ruin their reputation. Devereaux sends out an evil robot version of the Demon (that was fast) and has him attack two security guards. No, he doesn’t kill them he just kind of beats them up to the Simmons’ track “Radioactive”. It’s kind of cool but the choreography is terrible.

The next morning the guards along with Mr. Richards confront Kiss who are… wearing cloaks and sitting in lifeguard chairs by a pool? Okay. Of course, the Demon denies beating up the guards and Richards sides with them. I get it, these are the guys that are revitalizing your park, you can’t turn your back on that money. Nice one, Richards. We also learn that Star Child apparently has the power to shoot lasers from his eyes that let him hear conversations from far away. Which he does to listen in on the guards as they walk away.

Not long after Kiss performs the underrated Love Gun track “I Stole Your Love”. The security guards are off in their shack talking about chicks when they are gassed by robots dressed as Revolutionary Era British Soldiers. This provides Devereaux with the perfect opportunity to unleash a squad of shiny silver robot wolfmen to attack Kiss after the show. Kiss fights the wolfmen in another horribly choreographed fight scene set to “New York Groove”. Aside from the odd song choice, the fight feels particularly lackluster due to an overabundance of slow motion. You figure if the choreography was bad they would want to cut away from it as fast as possible. Nope. This is also the point where I noticed Ace Frehley’s infamous stunt double. Infamous because Frehley’s stunt double is very obviously black.

The big fight sequence against the silver karate werewolves is then immediately followed by two more fights. One against ninjas and karate masters and then another in the spook house against ghouls, mummies, and the Frankenstein’s monster. Only the last fight feels appropriate. C’mon Hanna-Barbera just make it like Scooby-Doo!!

The talismans are stolen somehow and Kiss ends up captured in a laser cage. Devereaux then unleashes his master plan, having his Kiss clones take the stage and incite a riot to tear down the park. The Kiss clones arrive and start playing “Hotter than Hell” for the crowd except now all the lyrics are about wanting to destroy. I shit you not. The robot’s sing lines like “We’ve taken all we can stand” and “Rip, rip. Rip and destroy!” in possibly the worst plan ever. The crowd boos at first but then starts to sing-a-long. So like, they’re being hypnotized? I don’t get it. Here’s a taste of “Rip and Destroy” for ya:

Kiss regains their powers for some reason, escapes, fights fake Kiss (we get to see plenty of Star Child fighting his black stunt double) and all his saved. Sam is freed from his mind-control device and the shock of the event leaves Devereaux in a catatonic state for some reason. All is saved.

Wow, how could they have messed up this bad? It’s not like there wasn’t a template for a band-movie either. Look at A Hard Day’s Night. In that film we follow the band 90% of the time, get lots of jokes, lots of songs, and have a good time. The Beatles weren’t great actors but the film plays off their charisma and individual charms. Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park has huge chunks of screen time without the band, is weirdly serious, has songs featured in the least organic way, and makes no effort to explore each band member’s personality. It’s not like Kiss doesn’t have a sense of humor either.

In 2015, Kiss was featured in an animated straight-to-video Scooby-Doo! movie called Scooby-Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery. I watched a few clips and Kiss had no problem poking fun at themselves. I’ve posted a clip right below so you can see for yourself:

I wish I had watched that instead. It made me laugh and it got me pumped. There’s a reason Kiss got big in the first place. Kiss lives to rock. They are born entertainers so let them tell a few jokes and then crank out the tunes. Which is what I’m sure they’ll be doing tomorrow when I’m there banging my head to “Rock and Roll All Nite”. Unless the band I end up seeing tomorrow are a bunch of robot clones. In that case, I’m gonna tear that place apart.