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 a loyal following through the KISS Army, they seemed on the verge of becoming the Beatles of the seventies. 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 and 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, featuring cameos from such renowned 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 phenomenally successful 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 habits. ‘We’d been right to the top and it seemed like there was no place else to go but down,’ declared Frehley in an interview with Kerrang! a decade later. ‘The biggest problem with being in a big, successful band is that it’s so easy to get wrapped in the money and the business of making more money that you forget why you ever got involved with a rock band in the first place.’
The pressure of starring in their own movie would either unite or divide 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 fifties 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 over the following decade that their products found their way onto children’s television sets around the world, with their first success the Huckleberry Hound Show soon followed by Top Cat, the Flintstones and the Yogi Bear Show.
I always wanted to make them superheroes
‘The idea we have about KISS is to develop their characters and to make the characters as strong as their music and vice versa,’ former manager Bill Aucoin explained to authors David Leaf and Ken Sharp, who at the same time had masterminded the idea of allowing all four members to release solo albums under the KISS banner. ‘I always wanted to make them superheroes and make them strong individually as well as part of the group. Using the visual media, like with KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, is one way to do that. Another is through their music and that’s why we did the solo albums. After a certain number of group records, you need a departure. We knew that the group was still strong and wanted to stay together. We also felt we were ready to go to the next level and at that point, it meant letting them expand on their own. All the ideas that each of them wanted to do but weren’t right for KISS as a group could be done on the solo albums.’
KISS were not the first rock group whose music would provide the basis for a feature, yet it had become more common that artists would instead star in concert films, chronicling their sell-out tours or legendary shows. Thus, the first half of the seventies 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 how they were marketed, 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. ‘We had already been in Howard the Duck and in the Marvel comic book. We had an initial meeting and they told us about the idea, we shrugged our shoulders and said, ‘That sounds fine,” scoffed Simmons in his autobiography KISS and Make-Up. ‘By that time Ace and Peter were miserable. KISS was on the covers of all the magazines but it was often a solo shot only for me. Sometimes Paul got a cover, but it was hardly ever Ace and it was never Peter. This wasn’t anything I planned.’
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 have been 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? 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, a writing duo who had recently collaborated on the 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, taking aspects of their personas and working them into their onscreen counterparts. ‘We were dealing with high entertainment as opposed to high art,’ admitted Stanley the following year. ‘And it wasn’t a Hitchcock film and it’s not a Bergman film. It depends on what you want to get out of it. It’s entertainment. There’s no deep message.’
Simmons had often been depicted 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 arsenal of superpowers. Stanley, the Starchild, possessed the power of telepathy, while Simmons, the Demon, was like a wild animal with his uncontrollable strength. Perhaps most bizarre, Frehley was able to teleport from one location to another, while Criss could leap long distances. Upon reading the script, Frehley became furious at how little his character spoke, despite his bandmates later claiming that the writers portrayed him accurately.
‘Ace in those days was uncommunicative,’ recalled Simmons on Frehley’s on-screen character. ‘He didn’t say much. No matter what you said to him, he would make this parrot sound, ‘Awk.’ Nobody understood it. And when he wasn’t making the parrot noise, he would mumble nonsense to himself – ‘Thirteen for a dozen’ or ‘I kills them all, one by one’ – and then he would laugh. These phrases meant something only to Ace and nobody had a clue what he was talking about. When the script came in, Ace’s character never spoke. He only said, ‘Awk.’ Ace was furious. He wanted to know why they didn’t give him any lines.’ In his own memoir No Regrets, Frehley also commented on this peculiar addition to the film’s script. ‘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.’
Sometimes I’d be in my trailer for two or three hours
Expressing his anger to Aucoin, Frehley insisted that his character be given dialogue. ‘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 most of his lines would be cut out from the international version of the picture. Regardless, it would prove a minor victory for the guitarist, who would find the experience of shooting a motion picture frustrating. ‘Sometimes I’d be in my trailer for two or three hours, with this make-up on my face going, ‘Let me out of here!’ That was the only thing I didn’t like about it, the waiting,’ he told Hit Parader.
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 sixties 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 screen 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 merely 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 could never hope to compete with the likes of Star Wars, the producers recruited a talented artist called Don B. Courtney, whose credits included 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.
While Simmons had regularly expressed a desire to pursue a career in Hollywood, one of his fellow band members harboured a similar dream that he had kept secret from the group. ‘I’ve always wanted to act,’ Criss confessed to the Blytheville Courier News a week before the film made its broadcast debut. ‘I really did some dangerous stuff. In the haunted house scene, I’m fighting Dracula, the Mummy, Werewolf and Frankenstein and I swing across the room on a chandelier. Well, the candles fell and I was on fire for a few minutes. I’m into Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. I eventually want to get into more serious acting. The band would eventually have to say goodbye to each other. It’s just a dream.’ Many years later Criss added, ‘I wanted to go into acting and when I did I hated it because it wasn’t the acting that I wanted. I wanted to be Al Pacino. Here’s the separation, the Cat is not an actor. He’s a rock star. And so are those guys, they aren’t actors. I hated doing the film.’
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 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 intended 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 Stanley remained the face of KISS, with many magazines often dismissing the other two members in interviews and photo shoots. 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.’
While hours trapped in their trailers would leave the group feeling disillusioned with the realities of Hollywood, when the cameras finally began to roll they witnessed the true magic of filmmaking. ‘I think it’s interesting though, in making the movie, that we used doubles. For some sequences they just wouldn’t let us do things,’ said Stanley. ‘I mean, we did fights and things like that. But for really impossible stuff they had stand-ins do it. It’s really funny to see somebody and relate them as you. Because there was one double who was a stuntman and then later on they had for one scene a stand-in who was another guy. And after seeing the stuntman, like two weeks, I related to him as me.’ In 2003’s KISS: Behind the Mask Frehley recalled, ‘My stuntman was black, putting white make-up on him did the trick, but they had to put fresh make-up on his hands! He was a great guy. There was one scene in the haunted place and I had an argument with the director. I just hopped in my Mercedes and took off. There was one scene where they needed me and my stuntman was my stand-in. There was a close-up shot and you can definitely tell that it’s not me.’
The climax to the picture would be the concert that took place in the amusement park, in which KISS performed to a crowd of ecstatic fans, proving that Devereaux’s doubts about the band bringing fortune to the resort were wrong. The live show was filmed at Magic Mountain on 19 May 1978, although with both Frehley and Criss walking from the shoot yet again, some of the sequence 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 eighties 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.
We want to do another movie
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. In various interviews following the release of the film the band hinted at the possibility of a big budget KISS movie. ‘They’re accepting scripts right now for the feature film,’ claimed Simmons in early 1979. ‘In January or February we’re going to sit around to discuss what we’re going to do. There are offers by two major studios. I mean millions and millions, to do a series of movies over the next four years.’ Around the same time Criss revealed further details, ‘We want to do another movie, a motion picture. Do a soundtrack for it, like Help! or A Hard Day’s Night.’
Ever since their inception KISS had always been a multi-media project and following an array of albums, merchandise and even comic books, perhaps it was inevitable that they would finally find their way onto the silver screen. Yet for many, including the band, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was an unmitigated disaster and the first true failure of their career. While Simmons became seduced by Hollywood during the eighties, cast as scenery-chewing villains in the science fiction thriller Runaway and the Rutger Hauer action movie Wanted: Dead or Alive, a long-awaited KISS feature film failed to materialise. Fans would have to wait almost forty years for a second spinoff movie when they joined forces with another pop culture icon for the animated feature Scooby-Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery. ‘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 on the cult legacy surrounding KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. ‘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.’