Off-Season Reviews: KISS Meets the Phantom (1977)

[Tonight’s selection is dedicated to the only self-appointed KISS Army Commander I know, my brother Craig. Who would make me watch this, along with Dawn of the Dead, as our house was “[lit] up like a damn Christmas tree” every holiday season.]

For our final circus themed movie, we take on one of the most talked about B-movies of all time KISS Meets the Phantom. A made-for-TV movie (airing only once on NBC) which died a quick death after reviews, both critical and intra-band, were negative. Destined to become just another piece of KISS-tory along with their infamous coffin.

Against such odds, the movie lived on, if only in the hearts of the faithful KISS Army, as the band refused to even acknowledge it. 30 years later, attitudes have changed somewhat, with Gene Simmons finally coming to terms with it; accepting that it has a Plan 9 From Outer Space vibe to it. So much so, that they’ve even deemed it appropriate for inclusion to some of their DVDs

KISS’ displeasure with the film supposedly comes from being unimpressed with their acting ability. If anything, I’d believe KISS would think the story was belittling to their brand. Since, in the movie, KISS’ role is to play three concerts to raise money in order to save the Magic Mountain theme park from bankruptcy.

This after the real-life KISS had already printed a comic book using their own blood in the ink, and released solo albums for each individual band member. After those achievements, saving a theme park seems kind of small.

Besides that, it’s rather hard to determine how KISS was disappointed. I mean, “Rock and Roll All Nite” is played over the credits, which feature not only Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley sharing a twirling bumper car, but also a Godzilla-sized Gene Simmons towering over a roller coaster!

‘Cuz, as far as mad scientist films go, this really isn’t that bad; falling firmly into the Shangrii-Las’ “good bad not evil” category. Benefitting immensely from being shot at the actual Magic Mountain, the titular park looks a lot better than the one shown in say, Diamonds Are Forever. And the special effects, while certainly not up to par with those shown in Star Wars, can certainly be traced back to Logan’s Run. (Which, for all you movie nerds, actually won the Oscar for Best Special Effects in ’76; one year before George Lucas changed the game.)

The plot is nothing more than a live-action Scooby-Doo episode, but the coupling of the traditional mad scientist storyline with an amusement is still criminally underused. (Most, as we’ve seen, revolving around either freakshows or crazed plastic surgeons.) Sure, there’s some strange points, such as when mad scientist Deveraux (Anthony Zerbe) uses an android made out of Sam (Terry Lester), the film’s love interest.

Sam’s supposed to shoot KISS’ profiles from every angle possible, so the doctor can replicate them. Completely ignoring the fact that when your band becomes big enough to stage three days worth of concerts at an amusement park, there has to be plenty of photos already floating around of you.

KISS supposedly hated the movie due to their bad acting, which is sort of strange. Director Gordon Hessler obviously knew they couldn’t act, as they don’t even show up until it’s halfway over. A quarter of the remaining movie is spend with Deveraux sitting in his lab watching computer monitors while robo-Sam builds androids modeled after historical figures. So it’s not as if KISS even has that much time to embarrass themselves.

How bad could they be? Gene Simmons is the Demon, Paul Stanley is Starchild, Peter Criss Catman, and Ace Frehley as Space Ace. They’re playing characters that are based on their on-stage personas, so they’re really playing their mental images of themselves! A bit of meta-ness that inadvertently lends this film some depth.

Space Ace demonstrating this the best when he says his third line, “So much for my solo;” after teleporting the band out of danger in the middle of his (soundtracked) solo. That might be garden-variety postmodernism nowadays, but not for a throwaway line on a network television movie.

(For the record, Frehley was only given a grand total of three lines in the movie. The aforementioned one, “And they’ve [park security] got guns,” and “Left!” Frehley allegedly used to make a “ack!” sound whenever he didn’t want to do an interview; which he did repeatedly when the script was being written. So script writers Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday just gave him that line as revenge. Frehley threw a fit, so two more lines were written for him.)

Throw in Space Ace’s black stunt double (yet another link to Plan 9…), and you have an almost instant kitschy cult classic. Gene may not like it, but at least it’s not Troll 2


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