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By 1978, KISS were arguably one of the biggest rock groups in the world. Having released three Platinum-selling albums, launched a variety of merchandise and built such a legacy through their iconic image that their loyal fan base were known as the KISS Army, they seemed on the verge of becoming the Beatles of the 1970s. And so a motion picture based around their escapades seemed like the next logical step.
During the previous decade, the ‘Fab Four’ from Liverpool had capitalised on their worldwide success with a string of music-based features, commencing in 1964 with A Hard Day’s Night, which was soon followed by Help!, Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine. Almost a decade after their split, Universal Pictures released a new movie based around their now-legendary music called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which featured cameos from such renowed artists as the Bee Gees, Alice Cooper and Aerosmith. Following in the footsteps of their idols, when KISS were approached to blend their own music with elements of science fiction and fantasy, the offer seemed too good to resist.
Within less than a year of their arrival on the scene KISS had released two acclaimed studio albums, as well as a live record, but tensions within the group had caused significant animosity between the four members. The demands of life on the road, along with the overnight fame the band had been forced to deal with, had resulted in substance abuse and bruised egos. Bassist and co-singer Gene Simmons, the most outspoken of KISS, had become the focal point in the media, causing some resentment from his bandmates, while both guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss had become liabilities due to their escalating cocaine habit.
The pressure of starring in their own movie would either unite or divide the them, and so when they were approached to participate in a new project entitled KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, it would be something of a ‘make or break’ crossroad for each member. The idea of a KISS movie came from the most unlikely of sources. Joseph Barbera came to prominence in the late 1950s as one half of Hanna-Barbera, one of the most successful and influential animation studios in the world, which he had founded with partner William Hanna. It would be during the 1960s that their products would find their way onto children’s television sets across the globe, with their first success the Huckleberry Hound Show soon followed by Top Cat, the Flintstones and the Yogi Bear Show.
KISS were not the first rock group whose music would provide the basis for a feature, yet it had become more common that they would star in concert films, chronicling their sell-out tours or legendary shows. Thus, the first half of the 1970s had seen the likes of the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and Led Zeppelin lighting up the big screen from the stage. ‘When we were approached to do KISS Meets the Phantom, it was pretty much sold to us as A Hard Day’s Night meets Star Wars. So we thought, ‘Hey, that’s great, and that sounds like a good idea,” explained guitarist and co-singer Paul Stanley in the liner notes to the Kissology Vol.2 box-set. ‘Originally, we were gonna write all new songs for it, and it was gonna be very hip and very cutting edge, and it turned into this very, very bizarre, um…spoof.’
Star Wars had been released the previous May and had already taken the world by storm, launching an array of movie merchandise and giving audiences such iconic characters as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. It had not only changed how movies were made but also how they would be promoted, while also revolutionising special effects and sound design. Hollywood wasted no time in capitalising on its success, and even before the filmmakers announced their intention to produce a highly-anticipated sequel, other studios were eager to create their own blockbuster fantasies.
The concept of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was based around a fledging amusement park that hoped to draw the public in with three nights of live music from KISS, much to the disgust of Abner Devereaux, the park’s engineer, who resents how the family environment has been soiled by the arrival of heavy metal fans. Disappointed by his negative attitude towards the event, the attraction’s owner, Calvin Richards, reluctantly fires Devereaux, yet unknown to the authorities the evil scientist has created an army of evil androids in his underground laboratory, which he has programmed to steal the band’s magical talisman.
Meanwhile, a young girl frantically searches for her boyfriend, only to discover that he has fallen under the spell of Devereaux, while a robotic clone of Simmons is created to sabotage the park. Can KISS save the day in time to perform a stellar show for their army of devoted fans? ‘We had an initial meeting, and they told us about the idea, and we shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘That sounds fine,” said Simmons in his autobiography Kiss and Make-Up. In truth, the four members of KISS were too preoccupied with their own personal lives, as well as the future of the band, to waste too much time worrying about a movie which threatened to cheapen their image and reduce them to parody.
The task of developing a suitable screenplay that would successfully merge live performances from the band with a simple-yet-exciting plot fell to Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday, who had previously worked together on the recent exploitation flick Too Hot to Handle. In order to encapsulate the personalities of each of the band members, the writers spent time following the musicians around, listening to how they spoke and taking aspects of their personas and working them into their onscreen counterparts.
Simmons had often been portrayed through live shows as a menacing demon, and so his character represented the animal of the group, while Stanley would be the trusted voice of reason. Yet although they had become notorious for their theatrical image and elaborate stage shows they were portrayed as the heroes of the movie, rather than the monsters, as they faced off against Devereaux’s devilish creations with an array of superpowers. Stanley, the Starchild, possessed the power of telepathy, while Simmons, the Demon, was almost like a wild animal with his uncontrollable strength. Perhaps most bizarre, Frehley was able to teleport from one location to another, while Criss was able to leap long distances.
Upon reading the script, Frehley became furious at how his character spoke, despite his bandmates later claiming that the writers portrayed him accurately. ‘Every time my character was supposed to speak, the only thing that would come out of his mouth was the sound of a parrot: ‘Awk!” claimed Frehley in his memoir No Regrets. ‘I guess the writers had picked up on a quirk of my personality, although I’m not sure where they got the information. Sometimes when I’d get loaded and I didn’t want to engage in conversation, I’d mimic the squawk of a parrot until the other person gave up and went away.’
Expressing his anger to Bill Aucoin, their long-suffering manager, Frehley insisted that his character be given dialogue, instead of merely making bird noises. ‘He wanted to know why they didn’t give him any lines,’ laughed Simmons many years later. ‘To their credit, they turned around and said, ‘What are you, nuts? You have never said anything to us except ‘Awk.’ We thought that’s the way you want to talk.’ Ace said he had a lot to say. Well, he should have said it.’ Frehley’s protest finally paid off and his character was given dialogue, although much of it would be cut out from the international version of the picture. Regardless, it would prove a minor victory for the guitarist.
The director chosen to bring the madness of KISS to the big screen was Gordon Hessler, a German-born filmmaker who had made a name for himself in the early 1960s with Alfred Hitchcock Presents, before making the transition to features with the British thriller Catacombs. But by the end of the decade he had found success in the horror genre, working with genre legend Vincent Price on The Oblong Box, Scream and Scream Again and Cry of the Banshee, all released through American International Pictures. KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park would prove to be Hessler’s sole foray into the world of rock ‘n’ roll, although he had little involvement with the development of the script and was more of a director-for-hire. Aside from the music, the other key aspect of the movie were the special effects. While a made-for-television picture like the KISS project could never hope to compete with the likes of Star Wars, the producers recruited a talented artist called Don B. Courtney, whose credits would include Bananas for Woody Allen and the TV series Logan’s Run. The film would include an assortment of Devereaux’s creations, as well as several optical effects, such as the laser beam emanating from Stanley’s eyes.
Principal photography took place in May 1978 in Valencia, Los Angeles at Magic Mountain, a popular theme park most known for its large roller coaster Revolution, which had opened two years earlier. While Simmons, Stanley, Frehley and Criss were to portray the four members of KISS, the role of Devereaux would be the most important of the supporting cast, and so the services of a veteran would be required. Anthony Zerbe was perhaps best known for his starring role alongside Charlton Heston in The Omega Man, a popular adaptation of Richard Matheson’s classic text I Am Legend (previously filmed a few years earlier as The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price in the lead role), although his other credits would include Cool Hand Luke and Papillon. The other principal roles were taken by Carmine Caridi (The Godfather: Part II) and newcomers Deborah Ryan and Lisa Jane Persky, while Brion James, later known as the replicant Leon in Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece Blade Runner and for his villainous turns in House III: The Horror Show and Another 48 Hrs., would appear as one of the park’s security guards.
While acting is often considered a glamorous profession, in reality it involves a lot of repetition and monotony, where actors spend hours waiting to be called onto the set. This was a tedious routine that soon began to take its toll on some of the band, with both Frehley and Criss retreating to their trailers to indulge in alcohol and drugs while waiting to hear from the director. ‘Ace felt the same contempt for the film. We would visit each other in our trailers and we both stocked our refrigerators with wall-to-wall green bottles of Heineken,’ stated Criss in his own biography Makeup to Breakup: My Life in and Out of Kiss.
‘We’d drink and snort coke all day while we waited for our calls. That was the worst part of moviemaking, sitting around for sometimes ten hours before they’d be ready for the scene. I wasn’t accustomed to that kind of discipline, especially when we were in our full make-up, waiting hours to do a five-minute scene. We’d get so fucked up that when we finally got the call, we’d stumble out of the trailer slurring our words and hitting the walls and knocking props over.’ During the course of the shoot, both Criss and Frehley would walk from the set, frustrated by the long hours and lack of excitement, although soon their boredom began to threaten the future of the band.
One day, annoyed by the drawn-out process of shooting the movie, coupled with doubt that he wanted to continue with KISS, Frehley announced that he wanted to quit. All of the money and glamour that had come with being a rock star had also proved to be a thorn in his side, as Simmons and – to a lesser extent – Stanley remained the face of KISS, with many magazines often dismissing the other two members in interviews and photo shoots. Frehley had expressed his desire to record a solo album, having performed lead vocals on the track Shock Me the previous year, and he longed for the artistic freedom that came from not being part of a collaboration.
Criss, too, had lost interest in being part of the group and wanted to pursue something outside of KISS. Concerned that the successful run may soon come to an end, Aucoin made his way to California to meet with Frehley and Criss and called a band meeting in one of the trailers, in which he tried to convince them both to persevere. ‘They told me that the film would really take the band to new heights, that it would cost millions if I walked away, that if we could just get through this film we’d do our solo projects and everything would be okay,’ stated Criss. ‘They kept working on me, and I agreed to finish the movie and then we’d see where we were at.’
The climax to the picture would be the concert that would take place in the amusement park, in which KISS would perform to a crowd of ecstatic fans, proving that Devereaux’s doubts about the band bringing fortune to the resort was wrong. The live show was filmed at Magic Mountain on 19th May 1978, although with both Frehley and Criss walking from the shoot yet again, some of the scene was shot using body doubles. One of the enthusiastic kids in the audience was attending his first rock ‘n’ roll concert, and the sight of KISS onstage had a profound effect on his future. ‘That night I saw a lot and learned a lot about rock music,’ claimed Steven Adler, the drummer for late ’80s rock giants Guns N’ Roses, in his book My Appetite for Destruction. ‘The most important thing I took away from the concert was an appreciation for how much the studio version of a song could take on a life of its own when it was performed live. It was the same song, same lyrics, same chord progression, but it was totally different, having a unique and often superior energy all its own.’ With Devereaux defeated and their rock ‘n’ roll show coming an end, evil has been punished and KISS once again save the day.
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park made its television debut three days before Halloween and, despite the band expressing their dislike for the picture, was well received by fans. Released four years later on both VHS and Betamax through Worldvision Home Video, the movie developed a cult following and helped to further promote the music of KISS. A recut version of the film was released overseas, retitled Kiss in the Attack of the Phantoms and with several notable differences, the most apparent being the lack of Frehley dialogue.
Simmons would be the only one of the group who would pursue acting following the release of the film, with his most famous roles being as villains in the sci-fi thriller Runaway and Wanted: Dead or Alive, the latter opposite action star Rutger Hauer. KISS‘ one and only movie spinoff would prove to be a disappointment for the band. ‘The whole thing was a goof. If you take it in that light, it’s okay, almost like a Saturday morning kids’ show or a Japanese sci-fi flick,’ admitted Frehley. ‘Gene, unfortunately, took the whole process very seriously and was infatuated with making movies. I also believe it was the spark that got him thinking he could act. KISS Meets the Phantom was a huge embarrassment for him, I think.’