KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)
Directed by Gordon Hessler
Written by Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday
Starring Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, and Anthony Zerbe
96 minutes, PG
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park is unwatchable garbage. I mean, I know this, and I wanted to make readers aware right here in the very beginning that I know this so that there’s no confusion. I realize that frequent visitors to this digital archive of cinematic musings are used to, you know, discussion of proper films in these pages, so I would completely understand if seeing this 1978 made-for-television effluvia pop up on your screen forced you to double check a URL. Rest assured, friends, that you are in the right place. My site has not been hacked by jolly pranksters. To be clear: referring to KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park as a “movie” is insulting to the standards set by even the worst movie that comes across your mind. However, it has been on my mind a lot lately, so I wanted to talk about it.
This past Saturday, I fulfilled a decades-long dream of finally seeing KISS live in concert. This checkmark on the ol’ bucket list occurred after a two-year long wait created by a global pandemic. The tickets for this concert were purchased in September of 2019 for a performance that was supposed to take place in March of 2020. This would have been mere weeks after the state went on lockdown due to COVID. The venue in question, due to the limits imposed on gathering size, postponed KISS until September of 2020. Of course, you may recall, by the ninth month of the year, things had not much improved. KISS themselves postponed the entire tour until September of 2021, promising ticketholders that their tickets would be valid on the new date in the upcoming year. Cut to last month, the concert I have been patiently waiting for with baited breath is postponed YET AGAIN due to Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, the last two original members of this forty-eight-year-old band, contracting COVID themselves, despite being vaccinated and despite the claims that tour staff and crew have been existing in a “health and safety bubble.” A new date for the concert was quickly announced, but I told myself that if the show was postponed again, I was going to ask for a refund on my tickets. Seeing KISS isn’t supposed to be this hard.
As I stated, the concert finally took place last Saturday and it was everything that I had built it up to be in my mind. They opened with “Detroit Rock City” by descending to the stage on elevator platforms shrouded in smoke, fireworks, and flame. They moved into “Shout It Out Loud”, and I am not ashamed to admit that I was beginning to feel tears of joy well up in my eyes. Gene breathed fire during “I Love It Loud” and blew my mind by playing “War Machine” (a personal favorite KISS tune that I was downright positive and ready to wager that they were not going to play). They did “Cold Gin” and “Heaven’s On Fire”. Paul exceeded expectations with a hard-and-heavy, non-disco version of “I Was Made For Loving You” on a second stage not fifty feet from where I was standing. In addition, his live rendition of “Say Yeah” actually made me like a song that I never really cared for much in the first place. By the time they finished their set with “Black Diamond” and then sequewayed into three encores, I had had my socks entirely rocked off. I was easily ranking the last two hours as one of the top-four best nights of my life. There’s the night my wife and I got married, the night my children were born, the night in 2015 that I saw AC/DC at Wrigley Field, and then last Saturday, the night that I was within spitting distance of Paul Stanley while he wailed through “Love Gun.”
Dammit, I really like KISS. In fact, they might be the first band I ever truly loved.
I’m gonna back up for a moment here and tell you that when I saw KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park for the first time, I was seven years old and I didn’t have the slightest inkling that KISS were a rock-and-roll band. All I knew at that time is that this movie was on television one Sunday afternoon and my father became unreasonably furious that my sister was even considering watching it. This film, it seemed, was forbidden to us, and no amount of begging or cajoling was going to change this fact. I had never heard of this movie before my sister suggested it, so I was naturally intrigued. KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park must be an R-rated sight to behold if Dad had banished it from our home. I was willing to bet that it probably featured topless women, cursing that would make a sailor blush, and gory violence.
Of course, when I did finally manage to sneak a viewing, I was very confused about my father’s disdain for what I had seen. This movie was not inappropriate for children at all. It wasn’t scary or sexy or violent. In fact, it wasn’t even any good. Even at seven, I was able to recognize that this feature had no production value whatsoever. The acting was either stiff or overdone. The dialogue was atrocious. The plot alternated consistently between non-existent and ludicrous. There were actually sequences in the movie where the stunt double for Ace Frehley is very obviously an African-American man. Wires can clearly be visible when items are levitated. KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park wasn’t just bad, it was embarrassing.
Here’s the thing, though . . . as banal and idiotic as I found the actual movie to be, I settled into numerous surreptitious viewings over the next couple of months because I was utterly enthralled by the musical performances by KISS scattered throughout the narrative. The songs were not only melodic and fun, but presented in a manner unlike anything I had ever seen before. The musicians were all done up in black-and-white facepaint and they presented their unique songs in character. Most specifically, they were walking, talking, dancing, singing comic book characters. They were, in essence, superheroes, and I simply could not get enough. The drummer (Peter) was done up as Catman. The guitarist (Ace) was made up to resemble a space alien from another world. The bass player (Gene) was The Demon, prone to spewing fire from his mouth and spitting fake-looking blood during his extended four-string solos. My favorite was The Starchild (Paul), who played rhythm guitar and had the best voice. He also sang the catchiest songs. The most irritating thing about rewatching this terrible film was that I had no capability to fast forward to the musical sequences. I had to sit through the pointless plot (something about a theme park owner creating villainous robot versions of KISS to make the public think that the members of the highly-popular band were evil because more people were going to their concerts than to the theme park) to get to the songs, all of which I was slowly (and secretly) learning by heart.
I would later come to find out that my father’s opposition to his children watching this dreck had nothing to do with the dreck itself. The content of the film had no bearing on his having made the program verboten on our television. He had never seen it. He was never going to even consider watching it. The only thing he knew about KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was that it featured KISS. My father hated rock-and-roll music of almost any stripe, but he especially despised KISS. He was, in fact, terrified of them. In his defense, there was plenty of evidence for the truly naive to believe that this radio-ready quintet were evil incarnate: 1) the most publicly seen member of the band was dubbed “The Demon” 2) the band capitalized all four letters of their name, making it appear to be an acronym for something (Knights In Satan’s Service, if the rumors were to be believed) and 3) the final two letters were also depicted as lightning bolts, which was reminiscent of a certain German army responsible for the Holocaust. Dearest Daddy was absolutely convinced that Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter were Satanists and Nazi’s. He carried this belief until the day he died. He once used “she lets Aaron listen to KISS” as evidence to my grandmother that my mother was an unsuitable parent.
My mother, for the record, was also not a fan of KISS. Her dislike for them, however, had nothing to do with whether or not they were devil worshippers. She just didn’t like their songs. Her tastes in rock music– a genre that my mother had no issues with whatsoever– leaned more toward The Beatles. KISS was a bit rowdy for her interests, but she acknowledged my appreciation of them and did nothing to discourage my adoration of them. In fact, she somewhat encouraged it by purchasing their albums for me. She did it inexpensively, to be sure– my mother purchased $0.25 vinyl records from thrift stores in bulk– but she was still the one plunking down hard-earned cash. It was through my mother’s generosity that I first obtained copies of Destroyer and Creatures of the Night. These two albums are, in my opinion, two of the greatest hard rock albums ever recorded.
Destroyer, in particular, held a special place in my heart back then because there were songs on the album that had been featured in KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. That recording also contains “Detroit Rock City” and “God of Thunder”, two compositions that still, to this day, make me feel downright glad to be alive. Creatures of the Night (probably my favorite KISS record overall) included “War Machine”, “I Love It Loud”, and “I Still Love You”, which is, inarguably, the greatest vocal performance in Paul Stanley’s almost-fifty-year career. These two albums were in constant rotation throughout middle school. By the end of high school, I had managed to find most of their records, now spending my own money on more expensive vinyl that was in better condition. I had to eventually replace my copy of Love Gun because I had scratched it all to hell through repeated listens. I replaced quite a few cassette tapes over the years as well. Especially Revenge, released in 1992, because I kept rewinding to hear “I Just Wanna” on repeat.
At the beginning of this entry, I stated that last Saturday I had achieved a personal goal of one day finally seeing KISS live. This statement is only partly true. I saw KISS live in 1992. It was on the Revenge tour. Gene and Paul had just replaced their drummer, Eric Carr, who had recently passed away from cancer, with Eric Singer. He was most notable for me at the time by being blonde when the members of the band had always traditionally had black hair. Some friends of mine and I had travelled to Chicago to see our favorite band. Fearing that my mother’s acceptance of her eldest son’s love for KISS would not extend to allowing me to go to a concert three hours away, I had lied to my mother about my whereabouts and told her that I was heading to Bowling Green, Kentucky with my friend Dallas and his father, both of whom were race car enthusiasts. KISS were very good that night, but the acoustics in The United Center were abysmal for a band so prone to playing so loudly and our seats were about as high up in the arena as one could possibly get without eventually hitting one’s head on the ceiling. Plus, after the original drummer and lead guitarist had been replaced more than a decade ago, Gene and Paul had ceased with the spectacle of their early live shows. There was no make-up or pyrotechnics. They had found a new lease on their careers by focusing on the sonics instead of the aesthetics. I was, in a word, disappointed. As much as I loved their music, I had to concede that my initial attraction to them was the circus sideshow aspect of how they looked.
It’s actually quite odd for me to contemplate that my initial love for a rock band had nothing to do with their music. My appreciation for their sound evolved over time. The child that was introduced to KISS through a cult-classic, made-for-television waste of expensive film was struck numb by their personas. I might have watched that movie with the sound turned down just to see the characters they presented. Growing up, though, I did not have ready access to the movie (it was harder and harder to find once Gene and Paul decided that the movie made them look like buffoons) and the visual representation that I could experience was videos on MTV, five- or six-minute clips made in the make-up-free era after Peter and Ace had bailed. I began to appreciate them more for their music because I had no other choice.
The concert I attended this weekend past was part of what KISS has been referring to as “The End of the Road” tour. Gene and Paul are planning to retire. Ace Frehley and Peter Criss have been replaced by Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, so it was really only half of the band that I have grown to admire, but they did perform in full almost-kabuki make-up. Gene spit blood and breathed fire and waggled his prodigious tongue. Paul shimmied and shook as well as a 69-year-old man who recently had COVID can. He also sounded heavenly, his forced tenor vibrato echoing just as he always did on my headphones. He sounded live just as he does on recordings, no mean feat given the years of wear and tear his vocal cords have probably endured. It was a fantastic night, more than 720 days in the making — decades in the making, if you want to be pedantic.
I am aware that this blog is supposed to be about movies that mean something to me. I threw that idea on its head by spending most of the entry talking about my love for a classic rock band that possibly holds little interest for most of my readers. My obsession with KISS, though, unlike other bands of the era that I follow and adore beyond comprehension (AC/DC, Aerosmith, Queen, Judas Priest among them), started with a movie. This is one of many things I contemplated as I stood totally agog with my brother-in-law to my right and my friend Zach to my left. As fireworks went off above my head, and KISS finished “Rock and Roll All Nite” and then said “Good night!” for the fourth time, I considered how a terrible movie that I was not allowed to watch almost forty years ago had an unintended impact that brought me here, now, to this incredible moment of satisfaction in a dream fulfilled. Even the worst movie you’ve ever seen can change your life.