Now, a trio of what could charitably be called “rock ‘n’ roll films” for Worst or “Worst”. It’s gonna get weird.
Whatever else one can say about Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, it achieves something that less than one-tenth of one percent of all films achieve: it ends on its strongest note: a performance of “God of Thunder”, the best Kiss song ever released, and the most naturally cinematic. This is a genuine achievement, something most films aspire to and few succeed at. Watching this particular film, it is immensely obvious how easy it was to earn that “best scene as last scene” achievement, but all involved had a genius, heretofore unheard of tactic for ensuring they arrived just there: make sure that the rest of the film is absolutely awful, and run from there.
Now, our feature presentation.
That title, everyone. What a delectably asinine sideways tilt of a Scooby Doo episode where the celebrity guests were the titular band themselves. It is perfect on paper, and it is an even better fit for a film in which Kiss largely seem like guests themselves. It is almost as if Kiss was giving a concert at a park and the filmmakers happened to film a movie around this, or some teenagers brought their fancy new Super 8 camera to an amusement park that day to film themselves on a roller coaster, Kiss showed up, and, suddenly, lightbulbs! Interestingly, that first description about Kiss stumbling into the plot is fairly accurate to the actual narrative of the film, and one suspects, the reality of its production. Who’d a thought Kiss would ever star in their own documentary?
Actually, for a band that turned pimply hooks and amateur-hour ambition into their own three-ring circus world-takeover, a tossed-off accident is probably more accurate to the essence of the band than anything else could have been. Now, Kiss isn’t a band without merit, but their songs always functioned best when they seemed accidental, like a bunch of teenagers screwing around in their garage and someone happened to hit record. The film plays like this too, but it is a textbook case on the mythic gap separating a three minute ditty and a roughly 90 minute film if ever there was one.
The film is also Scooby Doo-esque to an almost copyright-infringing level of misery. But what fun misery! It, I kid you not, begins with a straight-up mad scientist (and, had the film been a success, presumably the future keyboardist for Kiss itself). Abner Deveraux, to be exact, which I am fairly certain is not a name. Played by Anthony Zerbe, he, for reasons unknown to us, cajoled a position at an amusement park as head engineer and sunk the large majority of his alien spirit into a collection of lifelike animatronic robots which are, although nifty, not an especially utilitarian use of a theme park’s major funding. With Kiss imminent in the park’s future, presumably accompanied by a concert or whatever Kiss calls it when they stand around on stage and flail for the camera a little, the park’s manager decides to unload the funding for the robots and maneuver it toward the Kiss concert in hopes of drawing attention back to the park. Also there are a couple of kids, Melissa (Deborah Ryan), and Sam (Terry Lester), to fill in the Scooby Doo roles, but who cares about them?
Apparently the writers Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday and the director Gordon Hessler do, for they spend an awful lot of time wandering around these two teens in hopes of, I don’t know, building up the suspense for Kiss’ big show(down) late in the film? Or at least, in hopes of distracting us while we forget this is a Kiss film at all. Hessler, by the way, was totally a capable, functional director when in conditions becoming of his talents, primarily in the Gothic horror realms of the world. Now, a Gothic horror film starring Kiss sounds like a thing of perverse beauty, but Phantom is merely the perverse in search of the beauty, a Gothic horror in the sense that Scooby and the gang were Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. Or Gene Simmons trying to figure out where his voice went in the film, a most complicated feat of deduction if ever there was one.
It isn’t horror then, and it isn’t really a comedy (although it seems to think it is once or twice). What exactly is it then? One would presume it fancies itself one of those mild-mannered, precocious kiddie adventure films so popular in the mid 1970s and into the ’80s, except while some of those films featured adorable things like dogs, or station wagons, this one made some backdoor gambling deals and ended up with Kiss in a dare, the sort of “make this movie and live with yourself” kind of dare most likely. As far as “adorable” goes, at least it has Peter Criss, ammiright?
Seriously though, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park is the sort of film bad movie lovers were built for. It is do deeply, acutely unfunny that it can’t but double-back and enter the divine regions of the anti-masterpiece twilight zone inhabited by the likes of Ed Wood. The story is quite literally non-functional, spending a totally unjustifiable amount of time advertising the Magic Mountain amusement park. Until, of course, the advertisements become deeply amusing and a source of almost-grounded, sensible ambition amidst the surrealist nonsense that they manage to anchor the film in some weird way. The call of advertising money is the only thing that reminds that someone actually created this thing for a purpose, that it is not some unexplainable non-human object that accidentally entered our dimension. And you know what they say: “when the most notable thing about your film is how it advertises an amusement park…”
Actually, that is not nearly the most notable thing about this film. That would be the way it haphazardly and drunkenly falls down on either side of a line separating intentional self-parody and transgressive high-camp auto-critique. In the middle of a film, when it becomes the mystical battle we mere mortals have spent centuries lying in wait for, the fabled “Kiss with superpowers vs. white rat werewolf space suit monsters in front of a ferris wheel” showdown foretold in the prophecy, it enters a stratospheric region of Dadaist deconstruction of the idea of a film, the idea of scenes actually bleeding into one another with mechanics like editing to signify the passage of time. There is also, much to my approval, a full-on monster mad-house set piece, although it is so darkly lit it might have actually been a cat in a blanket.
Oh yeah, and Kiss is there too. One would assume that they do such things as “save the day”, but the film is not so sure. They are eventually credited with saving a day, but I am not sure how, or whose. They have superpowers good for, say, a childrens party or two, assuming they were really young children. At one point, they fight evil robot versions of themselves designed by the mad scientist to impersonate or slay the real deal, and I am obligated to make what I assume would be the de facto rite-of-passage review joke, if there were actually any reviews to be found of this unholy monstrosity: the robots have more charisma than the band themselves. Then again, if this is actually a work of post-structuralism, as I suspect it might just be, the robots may be a commentary on pop culture, or Kiss themselves, or the wonderful little challenging thought bubbles about how Kiss can reside in a theme park when they are already themselves a theme park. If not this challenging meta-textual work, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park proves to be a work of conjuration from the depth’s below, a scabrous collage of all things truly awful about the world. At the end of the film, one character preaches the gospel, lamenting “He created Kiss to destroy Kiss, and he lost”. There’s the film deconstructing its own existence for you again; in this case, the character happens to be speaking about the film itself.
Oh yeah, and Kiss is there too.
How good is it really?: 1/5 (truly an awful film laid bare at the very base functional understanding of craft)
But how “good” is it?: 4/5 (not quite full-blown child-in-a-candy-store delirium levels of discovery, but pretty close)