In 1978, at the height of their popularity, KISS made their motion picture debut with the rock ‘n’ roll fantasy KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. Produced in the wake of the phenomenal success of Star Wars the previous year, the made-for-TV movie incorporated elements of science fiction, comedy, fantasy and live performances that built on the stage persona that the band had portrayed over the previous five years. Released the same year that each member would record solo albums under the KISS banner, Phantom of the Park proved to be their first real failure and would mark the end of the golden era of KISS.
From the very beginning they were more than just a rock group: KISS was a brand. They were not just music, they were merchandise. ‘We were doing things differently in KISS, putting the cart in front of the horse, creating a brand, with a unique marketing concept, before we’d even developed a following,’ explained original guitarist Ace Freely in his memoir No Regrets. Perhaps it was inevitable that KISS would soon make their way into the world of movies; after all, both the Beatles and The Who had adapted their music for the big screen and by the release of KISS‘ sixth album Love Gun in 1977 they were one of the most popular acts in America.
Ever since their rise to fame their brand had ventured into numerous other medias, with the band making their comic debut in a 1977 issue of Howard the Duck, published just one month before Love Gun by the legendary Marvel. Their small screen escapades would include the supernatural drama Millennium along with voiceover work on animated episodes of Family Guy and the Fairly OddParents, while also returning to movies with the rock ‘n’ roll comedy Detroit Rock City. But it would be in 2003 that KISS would find their kindred spirit when the four-piece made an appearance in the long-running children’s horror cartoon Scooby-Doo.
Originating in the late 1960s with the popular series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, the characters were created for Hanna-Barbera and focused on a group of young friends and their titular dog that travel across the country in their van, the Mystery Machine, encountering all manner of supernatural disturbances. The franchise was relaunched in 2002 in two formats; a live-action movie and a new animated series, What’s New, Scooby-Doo? It would be the latter that KISS would become involved with when they were approached to portray themselves in an episode entitled A Scooby-Doo Halloween.
Making their way to the fictitious town of Banning Junction to visit one of their family, while also hoping to attend a KISS show at the Halloween masquerade ball, the group – Fred, Velma, Daphne and the cowardly duo of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo – arrive to discover that the local cornfields have been destroyed and that a celebration is to be held to mark the town’s centenary, much like in John Carpenter’s horror classic The Fog. As they begin to investigate the recent disturbances they are attacked by robot scarecrows and as KISS take to the stage the ghost of Hank Banning, who had died in the town a hundred years earlier, returns to claim his vengeance.
What’s New, Scooby-Doo? would not be the first time that KISS were recruited by Hanna-Barbera to play caricatures of themselves, with the company having produced Phantom of the Park in the late 1970s and fans of both KISS and Scooby-Doo were surprised when a decade after their appearance on the television show they joined forces once again for an animated feature film, Scooby-Doo and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery. ‘We do very, very few cross-branding things and we’ve been around forty-one years and we’re very careful about who we associate with,’ bassist and co-singer Gene Simmons told IGN in 2015. ‘Scooby-Doo is iconic so for us it was a no-brainer.’
Feature length vehicles for pop and rock stars has been a common marketing took since the 1960s when the Beatles starred in A Hard Day’s Night. Following the psychedelic animation Yellow Submarine a few years later, record labels and movie studios were working together to capitalise on the success of their artists by developing fantasy films that played on their public image. The Sex Pistols had The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle and The Who had Tommy, but Pink Floyd would take their concept into darker, nightmarish territories with an adaptation of The Wall, a surreal and haunting depiction of a rock star’s descent into madness.
But the motion picture that would bare the closest resemblance to the Scooby-Doo movie was Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem, an anime feature based on the 2001 Daft Punk album Discovery, in which an evil music producer abducts a popular group from their home world and brings them to Earth, where they are brainwashed and marketed as the latest sensation. The combination of fantasy and science fiction to a soundtrack of well known songs by an established artist would provide the template for KISS‘ second movie spinoff and their first full-length animated adventure, Scooby-Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery.
‘When Warner Bros. came to us and said, ‘How would you like to do a crazy, wacky thing?,’ immediately it was like, ‘Crazy, wacky? That’s our middle name. What is it?,’ recalled Simmons. ‘This is a tour de force and for those of you that love comic books, you’ll see homages to Jim Steranko, obviously Kirby, there’s very intricate stuff in there. It’s a story that meanders left and right; when you think you got it all figured out the portals of space and time – and what could be and what if – opens up and you’re off into the deep Wonderland of it all.’
With the history that both KISS and Scooby-Doo have on the big screen it is somewhat appropriate that their feature film would take place in an amusement park. Not only had this been the principal location of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park but many of Scooby-Doo‘s mysteries had also taken place in similar environments. As such, over the years several theme parks have been developed based on the series, such as Scooby-Doo’s Haunted Mansion in San Antonio and the Scooby-Doo Spooky Coaster in Australia.
The masterminds behind Rock and Roll Mystery were the creative duo of Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone, who first gained attention for their work on Duck Dodgers for Warner Bros. Further success came with the Looney Tunes Show but it would be 2010’s Scooby-Doo! Abracadabra-Doo that would mark their first contribution to the franchise. Despite an average of two Scooby-Doo movies produced year, Brandt and Corvine would wait another five years to return to the series. ‘It’s a great job to have,’ admitted Brandt to the Pulse. ‘We get to work with characters that we’ve loved since we were children and now we get to work with one of our favourite bands.’
Charged with the task of bringing both sets of characters together was writer Kevin Shinick, a veteran of both Marvel and DC and an Emmy Award winner through his work on the satirical show Robot Chicken. ‘I’ve been dreaming of this since I was ten,’ he told a journalist at 2015’s Comic-Con. ‘When they gave me the job I as like, ‘Well, yeah!’ It was everything that I’ve been thinking about for decades.’ Yet while the writers of Phantom of the Park only had their portrayal of KISS to focus on, Shinick’s primary concern was to make sure their appearance in the story did not conflict with the tone that fans had come to expect from Scooby-Doo.
‘The timber and tone had to be changed a little because, obviously, I’m not going onstage screaming,’ frontman Paul Stanley told Comic Vine on how the band had to adopt the atmosphere that the filmmakers were aiming for. ‘It was a lot of fun. We’ve done things like this before but this is such a more-complete work in that it’s a full-length motion picture, as opposed to an episodic TV show. So it was somewhat rewarding to see finished.’
The story of Rock and Roll Mystery focuses on KISSWORLD, a recently-opened amusement park based on KISS that is haunted by a strange entity known as the Crimson Witch. Scooby-Doo and friends arrive at the park to find patrons running in fear and its owner, Manny Goldman, struggling to avoid bankruptcy. Whole the gang offer their services they are dismissed by the park’s head of security, arousing their curiosity even further. Soon KISS appear inside the park and, playing on their rock star images, Stanley’s Starchild is a ladies’ man while Simmons’ Demon is a growling beast with canine teeth.
Much like Phantom of the Park, Rock and Roll Mystery features several musical interludes by KISS and with the exception of 2009’s Modern Day Delilah and new track Don’t Touch My Ascot, all of the songs featured were from the classic era, including fan favourites Rock and Roll All Nite and Shout It Out Loud. It would be during these segments that Brandt and Corvine were able to experiment the most with the visuals, abandoning a traditional narrative in favour of surreal montages that included Simmons’ infamous long tongue rolling out down a staircase like a red carpet.
‘We’re invited to okay the theme park, which is going to be a KISSWORLD and then the fun begins,’ explained Simmons. ‘It’s haunted, there’s a witch and spells and then all of a sudden it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. You find out that’s fake but there’s a mystery behind the mystery and the portals of time open up and we’re off into deep space with superpowers and large planetary-size dangers; just like in the Fantastic Four there was Ego the Living Planet.’
Desperate to learn the truth about the Crimson Witch, Stanley and Velma, the most intelligent of the gang, visit a fortune teller in the park called Chikara, who claims that the Witch is searching for an object called the Rock of Kissteria, the only thing that can control her evil. It had originated in a realm far away where the Witch, an all-powerful sorceress, created something known as the Destroyer, which she would summon to obliterate her enemies and so the Rock of Kissteria was created to keep her from fulfilling her evil plans.
‘It was bound to happen, right? They’re two great American pop icons. Didn’t it have to happen? We were just lucky to be there when it did,’ claimed Corvine. ‘It’s kinda shocking that they haven’t been together. I guess there was one Halloween special a few years ago that there was a small appearance but nothing like this. So in some ways I feel like these pop icons deserve to be together for a long time. For me, it’s a no-brainer.’
Realising that trapping the Witch before she can obtain the Rock is the only way to defeat her and thus save the show, a plan is formulated to trap her by using Shaggy and Scooby-Doo as bait. But as she gains the upper-hand the members of KISS arrive to save the day, each using their superpowers against her, but not before she manages to open a portal and sucks Shaggy and Scooby-Doo through to Kissteria. Revealing that the ferris wheel is in fact the Dynasty Star Portal, KISS summon the magic to transport them through time and space to locate the Crimson Witch and save their friends.
‘We had a great time doing this,’ explained guitarist Tommy Thayer, who joined KISS in 2002 and was the only guitarist to adopted Frehley’s character of the Spaceman. ‘We did our voices in the studio last year and we had a great tie doing it. The first time I’d ever done something like that. And we out together a song, a unique song for this, that we stuck in there too that people will be surprised to hear.’
With the Destroyer and Dynasty both explicit references to KISS albums, another would come with the introduction of the Elder, the wise old woman that rules over the good people of Kissteria. Taking the character’s name from 1981’s Music from the Elder, the last album to feature Frehley as guitarist util Psycho Circus seventeen years later, the Elder would guide KISS and the gang on their mission to defeat both the Witch and the Destroyer. With the Witch seemingly vanquished, KISS head back to Earth to perform at a sold-out show in the park as Scooby-Doo and friends bring the Destroyer’s reign of terror to an end.
While Stanley, Simmons, Thayer and drummer Eric Singer provided their own voices – along with manager Doc McGhee – Scooby-Doo veterans Frank Welker, Matthew Lillard, Grey Griffin and Mindy Cohn would reprise their roles as Scooby-Doo (and Fred), Shaggy, Daphne and Velma, respectively. Rock and Roll Mystery, however, would be Cohn’s swan song as Kate Micucci would take over the character for the subsequent films. ‘Grateful gang, I still get to voice Velma for all DVDs and games,’ announced Cohn on Twitter in July 2015. ‘So welcome Kate Micucci and know there’s room to share.’
Other performers on hand to provide their vocal talents included filmmaker Kevin Smith, who had previously spoofed Scooby-Doo in his 2011 stoner comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Another director to make an appearance was Penny Marshall, best known for the Tom Hanks comedy Big, while her brother Garry – who would sadly pass away the following year – portrayed Goldman. In the role of Chikara, the mysterious fortune teller, was Jennifer Carpenter, whose performance as Debra Morgan in the long-running drama Dexter brought her numerous accolades.
‘Warner Bros. really stepped up. This is the most expensive Scooby movie of all time,’ declared Simmons. ‘Ten minutes into the film and all of a sudden we are in space with monsters, sci-fi and sorcery.’ Unlike the disappointing experience of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, their second feature film – and first to include Thayer and Singer – the critical reaction to Rock and Roll Mystery was positive. ‘Scott-Doo is recognised the world over,’ said Singer. ‘It’s a world brand.’
Whole rock stars such as Marilyn Manson, Slayer and Avenged Sevenfold may have been met with ridicule for appearing in a Scooby-Doo movie, the fact that from day one KISS have tried to dominate every market and medium has allowed them to toy with their image and the one that the press has built for them over the last four decades. ‘KISS is a band that can do these kinds of things whereas most bands, most artists can’t,’ stated Stanley. ‘We’re unique like that.’