Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978)

          By the late ’70s, cartoonish hard-rock outfit Kiss was making a fortune selling tacky merchandise to kids like me, who found their mixture of horror-movie costumes, simplistic songs, and supernatural mythology irresistible. There were action figures, comic books, lunchboxes, posters, and, to the band’s great dismay, a spectacularly awful made-for-TV movie. Despite high ratings, a bruising critical reception prompted the band to suppress the movie for many years, making bootlegs sought-after collectibles. Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park finally got a legitimate DVD release in 2007, when entrepreneurial band bosses Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley decided that if anyone was going to make money laughing at Kiss’ disastrous dramatic debut, it should be Messers. Simmons and Stanley. In truth, when I first saw this thing on NBC a few days before Halloween 1978, I probably realized something was wrong—but didn’t care. As produced by cartoon mavens Hanna-Barbera, Kiss Meets the Phantom is a live-action onslaught of horror-movie tropes and juvenile jokes, making it feel like an extra-trippy episode of Hanna-Barbera’s Scooby-Doo franchise. What more could a ’70s kid want?
          When the story opens, the members of Kiss—portrayed in the movie as otherworldly superheroes—arrive to play a show at the Magic Mountain theme park near Los Angeles. They soon discover that a crazed scientist (Anthony Zerbe) is taking his skill for creating Disney-style animatronics too far, kidnapping teenagers and replacing them with robot lookalikes. How? Why? Don’t look for answers. Before long, the Kiss gang faces off with robot versions of themselves, exhibiting cheaply rendered superpowers like Simmons’ ability to breathe fire. A number of songs are performed onscreen, and many more appear on the soundtrack, so the constant barrage of clumsy visuals and hard-driving music (excepting the wimpy “Beth”) mesh with the nonsensical plotting to create a fever-dream vibe, because it’s hard to believe anything this weird ever got made, much less broadcast. A big part of the unintentional-humor appeal is that all four members of Kiss give terrible acting performances, so each scene feels more catastrophic than the last.
          FYI, the version of this movie that Kiss released in 2007 isn’t the as-broadcast original but rather a shorter cut released to European theaters under the moniker Attack of the Phantoms; I’m sure everyone reading this will weep at the thought of being deprived the unvarnished masterpiece I first saw in 1978.

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park: FREAKY

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