KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) (TV Movie) Director: Gordon Hessler Starring: Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Anthony Zerbe, Deborah Ryan, Carmine Caridi, Terry Lester, John Dennis Johnston, John Lisbon Wood, Lisa Jane Persky, John Chappell, Richard Hein, Brion James
I was never a KISS fan. The problem is that I was too young – I was an 80s kid and KISS basically peaked in the 70s, having formed in January 1973, only a few months before my birth. In 1978, the band’s original lineup – Paul Stanley (vocals, rhythm guitar), Gene Simmons (vocals, bass guitar), Ace Frehley (lead guitar, vocals) and Peter Criss (drums, vocals) – were so popular that each member actually released their own solo album that year (all four albums were released on September 18, 1978 and accompanied by a marketing blitz, Frehley’s being the most successful). This was all part of a “two-pronged strategy”, the second part being a movie, which was to be a combination of Star Wars (naturally, since it was a massive hit in 1977) and A Hard Day’s Night. The problem, though, is that KISS is not The Beatles, and the filmmakers involved in creating their NBC TV movie – Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, were no George Lucas. Not even Phantom Menace-era Lucas.
The film takes place at Six Flags/Magic Mountain, a theme park located in Valencia, California (opened in 1971). KISS is about to play a three night gig, and everybody in the park is excited, including park owner Calvin Richards (Carmine Caridi) who hopes that the money they bring in will “save this park from terminal deficits.” One person who isn’t excited is resident genius Abner Devereaux (Anthony Zerbe) who looks upon KISS (and rock’n’roll) with disgust. Elsewhere, Melissa (Deborah Ryan) and her park employee fiancé Sam (Terry Lester, who was in Ark II and would later be a star in the daytime soap The Young and the Restless) are enjoying the park rides when Sam decides to investigate something he saw at Devereaux’s underground laboratory. Sam soon disappears behind a sliding door.
Devereaux is later harassed by a trio of punks who behave the way the writers of the film think punks behave (“It’s like I said, pops, Chopper don’t hurt nobody unless he want’s to!”, “Lay off, man! We make our fun the way we want.. get it?!”, and “Chamber of Thrills! Get it, heart attack time, all the way! Lame-o, man, I mean really lame!”) Afterwards, Melissa visits the lab looking for her boyfriend, and Devereaux shows her his collection of automatons, including a barbershop quartet (lame-o, man, really lame), then he sends her away (we soon find out that Devereaux has turned Sam into his own personal cyborg/slave by implanting some kind of diode-thing on his neck). In the meantime, the three rebels-without-a-clue get captured at the Chamber of Thrills attraction and Devereaux turns them into some park robots as well. Later, park owner Richards becomes disturbed by the endless ride malfunctions and Devereaux’s erratic behavior, and fires him, which naturally pisses off the park genius, who swears revenge on everyone. One line that makes me laugh is when Devereaux pleads “There’s nothing for me outside this park!” Here’s a scientist who can invent state-of-the-art animatronics and even turn people into mindless cyborg slaves and all he wants to do is hang out at an amusement park and make new rides. He has got to be the dumbest smart person in all of TV-land.
It should be obvious at this point that the “phantom” of the park is Zerbe’s Devereaux character, even though no phantoms will ever been seen and the word isn’t uttered once. But once he shouts “I will destroy you! All of you! And you, KISS, will be my instrument!” while sitting at his control terminal you know he’s gone into full batshit mad scientist mode. Speaking of KISS… you might have noticed that we are more than 30 minutes into this fiasco and we haven’t even seen the band yet! Well, the wait is over! KISS comes out on stage backed by fireworks and lightning, and… laser eyes.
After a performance of “Shout It Out Loud” (that’s off Destroyer from 1976), we finally meet the band members up close (for the uninitiated: Peter Criss = Cat Man, Ace Frehley = Space Ace, Gene Simmons = The Demon, and Paul Stanley = Star Child). All four share a special super power – the power to behave like wood when acting. But they each have their own separate abilities as well – Star Child can shoot lasers out of his right eye (I think only the viewers can see them) which allow him to zoom in close on people. Somehow this also gives him the ability to hear their conversations. Demon/Gene Simmons growls like a tiger and looks menacing, and he can breathe fire. Space Ace can teleport and occasionally let out a squawk sound (“Awk!” or “Ack!” – you pick which one because I don’t know). I can’t remember what Cat Man does – I think he can leap around a lot.
Anyway, Devereaux puts his plan to discredit the band into motion, first by making an android version of Gene Simmons, who is released to break stuff and beat up a few guards (one of which is Brion James!) The whole thing is scored to cheesy funk in 70s TV style (or maybe a Hannah Barbera cartoon – I’ll get to that in a bit). There’s a funny bit where the guards are looking for KISS the next day and Brion James’ character suggests they might be swimming. His boss Snede (John Chappell) replies matter-of-factly “rock ‘n rollers don’t bathe.” But it just so happens that KISS is hanging out by the pool, sitting in extremely tall beach chairs, dressed in bizarre looking robes (and wearing their face-paint, as always). After the group has a run-in with the park administrators, who think Demon went on a rampage the night before, Calvin Richards decides to leave them alone, overruling Snede’s protests (Richards just wants the shows to go on so he doesn’t lose money). Afterwards, Melissa shows up, still looking for her fiancé, and the band members show her their special talismans, which are the source of their super-powers (which unfortunately do not include the ability to locate missing people). The talismans (aww, aren’t they cute looking?) are protected by a force field, but bad-guy Devereaux swears to steal them away. Melissa wishes everybody had their own special talisman, and one of the members of KISS tells her “But they do… they just haven’t realized it!” Naturally! Everybody has that special mojo inside of them!
That night, show #2 goes on, and KISS is shown performing “I Stole Your Love” (from 1977’s Love Gun). Afterwards, Devereaux sends Sam to steal the talismans while KISS is busy singing their ballad “Beth” to Melissa, who is sad that she hasn’t been able to find Sam yet. Sam fails in his task, unable to penetrate the force field. The gang and Melissa soon figure out that “this Abner cat” must be behind the weird goings on and they seek him out. Listening in, Abner Devereaux says “I may be outnumbered… but I am not.. outmanned.” That’s one of many bizarre lines spoken in KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.