Throughout the 1970s, the rock band KISS served as a kind of symbol for my own paradoxical, f’ed-up world. On Sundays, we frequently heard diatribes against the band spewed from the pulpit. “Knights in Satan’s Service,” the preacher warned, again and again and again. Believe me: Gene “The Demon” Simmons, with his long wiggling tongue and blood-drinking candids (from various albums) inspired countless, tongue-speaking “the Holy Ghost has taken over the service” and paranoid “Jesus is coming again soon” frenzied Sunday night services that usually dragged on past midnight, which left us dragging through Monday morning classes.
At school, it was the exact opposite. My parents, for reasons I still cannot fathom, moved us from Indianapolis to a small, gun-toting Klan county populated by trailer parks, farms (which smelled of cow fertilizer for six months out of the year), and mini-suburbs. To many of the kids from this hayseed community, Peter, Paul, Gene, and Ace were akin to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and if you were foolish enough to criticize the sacred prophets of rock and roll, be prepared for an ass whuppin’. You weren’t even safe breathing negatives about KISS in front of the white trash girls, because they had become zealous converts, one and all, with Peter’s “Beth, I hear you calling,” and would promptly order their boyfriends to beat the holy shit out of you from here to Sunday. As stupid as I was in my teens, I was still smart enough to keep my mouth shut on the subject of KISS. Actually, I was never sure what all the fuss was about either way. Their songs were harmless trifles and their stage act wasn’t much different than the average Vincent Price movie. My younger brother, on the other hand, got caught up in the KISS phenomenon and actually risked buying two of their LPs. Unfortunately for him, he was eventually caught in possession of “Hotter than Hell” and “KISS Alive.” Needless to say, those records were offered up to an angry Jehovah in the sacred church parking lot bonfire shortly before Sunday night service (I can still hear those echoes of the Burgermeister Meisterburger laughing “the children of Somberville will never play with toys again” as he lit the torch).
Imagine my surprise then when, a few years later, I caught Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park(1978) at a friend’s house (the church folk never found out). My confusion over the KISS brouhaha magnified, only (perhaps) surpassed by Gene becoming a kind of constipated Pat Boone-type late in life.
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park could very well be to 1970s TV movies what Manos: The Hands of Fate was for the 60s: a movie so bad that one risks permanent lockjaw from having watched it, which of course is its appeal today (I’ve grown wiser in middle age).
Directed by Gordon Hessler (of 1970‘s ultra-cool Scream and Scream Again and 1973’s even cooler Golden Voyage of Sinbad), who must have lost control of his talents five years later, because Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park is an unfathomable mess, despite having that cheez whiz villain of countless cinematic trash, Anthony Zerbe. It’s so bad that the band is still embarrassed by it (along with their appearance on the cooler-than-life-itself “Paul Lynde Halloween Special.” Mind you, this is same band who was was proud of “Oh Beth, what can I do?”). They reportedly have a rule for family and friends to never mention it.
The idea of casting the Knights in Satan’s Service as superheroes in a TV movie followed the epic success of their appearance in two Marvel Kiss Comics (“printed with KISS’ own blood”). Produced by Hanna Barbera and NBC, the blame (if one is prone to blame) can’t be fully attributed to Hessler. Apparently, network censors found the original script too dark and reacted like frightened Pentecostals, ordering numerous rewrites. The band, hating the emasculated script but having already signed the contract, were powerless and disinterested—so much so that none of them bothered to memorize their lines, and merely repeated what was read to them before takes. Peter Criss was so disgusted that he refused to participate in redubs, which forced the studio to hire cartoon voice actor Michael Bell (AKA “Handy Smurf”) to overdub. Ace Freely’s dialogue mostly consists of the word “ack,” which apparently was scripted as a punishment because that’s the only response executives got from the Spaceman in meetings. Gene fairs better with an echo box ( Zandor anyone?) and a Leo the Lion roar.
The African American stunt double filling in for Ace is almost as ludicrous as Ed Wood’s chiropractor standing in for a dead Bela Lugosi—as if we wouldn’t notice a different skin tone and additional thirty pounds. Of course, the fact that none of the four could actually act to begin with hardly made the director’s job easier.
The initial idea was Star Wars meets A Hard Day’s Night (bits of March of the Wooden Soldiers, House of Wax, “ Mad Monster Party,” and countless “Scooby Doo” cartoons thrown in, along with king fu flicks). It really shows just how unthreatening KISS was to begin with. The fact that they’re one of the last bands known to the masses by their first names indicates that theirs was a very simple idea put over with such shrewd business acumen that it virtually guaranteed their cult standing.
The opening of the band singing “Rock and Roll All Night” superimposed over an amusement park rollercoaster (as the fans—blonde babes of course—fawn over their objects of adulation) is the last we’ll see of KISS for about a half hour. For a movie that’s supposed to be about them, that’s not a good sign.
After introducing a Wonder Bread couple at the park, the plot (so to speak) rehashes yet another variation of the Phantom of the Opera, with Zerbe as the wronged Magic Mountain employee turned revenge-minded Doctor Doom who eventually gets around to creating an army of KISS robots (since KISS is a popular attraction there—there’s even a KISS look-alike contest at the park) to exact revenge on his employers .
For hardcore fans, the best vignettes are the concert footage, which makes one wonder why they just didn’t stick to to that. Of course, then we wouldn’t get to see an appearance by all the classic monsters, killer putty tat robots, light saber-wielding marital arts fight scenes of the KISS Army vs. the KISS Army, kitschy 25 cent FX straight outta Al Adamson flicks (Starchild’s laser vision, the Demon breathing hellfire, Spaceman’s Trekkie teleportation, and Catman’s feline proclivities) and for the icing on the cake… yes, Peter singing “Beth I know you’re lonely and I hope you’ll be alright, ’cause me and the boys will be playing… alllllll niiiiiigggggght,” to Daphne. Meanwhile, her boy toy Fred has been lobotomized, which means KISS to the rescue. Oh, hell yeah, life is good and, let’s be honest, Kiss Meets the Phantom is a helluva lot more fun than Neil Diamond as the Jazz Singer.