Monday 4 July 2011

VHS Purgatory:
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park
(Gordon Hessler, 1978)


£1, from that odd furniture/junk shop just up from Brockley station. Man, that shop is so weird… I can never tell who’s a member of staff and who’s just a weirdo looking around… everytime I go there, everything seems to be a completely different price… I don’t know if it’s a charity shop or just some strange, marginal business venture… it doesn’t seem to have a name… when I walked past the other day, their whole back room seemed to be filled with smashed up bits of wood… but, er, anyway…


“Mystery and mayhem with Kiss perofmring their greatest hits --- with spectacular visual effects!”


So long, ‘Slade in Flame’! Get behind thee, Aerosmith tour video I watched when I was twelve! Don’t even think about it, ‘Abba: The Movie’! The ultimate ‘70s corporate rock cash-in movie is here, and I will accept no substitutes.

Produced by those loveable goofs at Hanna Barbera on behalf of the Gene Simmons Evil Mega-Corporation (or whatever), I expected ‘Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park’ to provide a few chuckles and a lot of comforting boredom, and so was ill-prepared for the veritable fungasm that awaited my tired eyes when I hit play on this humble tape.

(By sheer coincidence, I think this is actually a very appropriate post for the 4th of July, even though as a stinking foreigner I myself care little for such festivities.)

A crude opening montage sees the members of Kiss super-imposed on top of night-time fairground footage. Inexplicably, Peter Criss is seen miming the drums on a roulette wheel. Drink it in, Kiss Army recruits, as this is the last glimpse of your commanding officers you’ll be getting for quite a while. Director Gordon Hessler (whose horror credits include ‘Scream and Scream Again’ and ‘Cry of the Banshee’ for AIP, as well as taking over ‘The Oblong Box’ after the death of Michael Reeves), clearly has other things on his mind.

Like FUN, primarily. Beautiful, sun-dappled, 1978 suburban American amusement park fun, to be precise. Thankfully I’m a bit too young and located on the wrong side of the world to be fully smitten by this full-scale nostalgia landslide, but anyone currently in about the 35-45 age bracket and raised somewhere in the Southern half of the USA should probably prepare themselves for paralysing wistfulness and bouts of uncontrollable sobbing, as gentle, smiling ‘Dazed & Confused’ teens fade in and out of focus, enjoying a summer’s day out in their local parentally-approved leisure complex. Costumed mascots caper and light aircraft spell out messages in the sky as bell-bottomed girls giggle over cans of soda. “Don’t forget to be here at 7pm for the first night of the KISS CONCERT”, declares the blaring public address system. Truly, it is paradise.

Not everyone is happy though, and in particular a rift seems to be developing between the park’s manager (a simple, business-minded fellow who wants to give the kids what they want, like rollercoasters and Kiss concerts) and the ‘creator’ (a brooding weirdo who lives in a hi-tech underground research complex and is primarily concerned with making crappy animatronic waxworks depicting macabre historical scenes). You can probably see where this is going.

Also seemingly less than satisfied with the status-quo is a small faction of scruffy, biker-esque miscreants with names like ‘Chopper’ and ‘Slime’ , who seem intent on polluting the wholesome atmosphere of the park with assorted examples of cruel, low-key thuggery.

Now before we proceed, I should state that I’ve never really felt comfortable with Kiss. Sure, a few of their records are cool, and their whole costumed character shtick is pretty amusing, but as a rock n’ roll group – even in the relatively debased mode of ‘70s arena rock – they have always struck me as a distinctly candy-ass proposition. I take the implicit ideology behind my rock n’ roll pretty seriously, and as such, the shallowness of the Kiss brand has always rung hollow as the cracked liberty bell for me, even as many of my grunge-era peers have sought to rehabilitate their cultural legacy.

This ideological disjuncture can immediately be seen in ‘Phantom of the Park’, via the portrayal of the aforementioned ‘delinquent’ characters as stupid and threatening figures. I mean, I ask you: what kind of self-respecting heavy rock band would seek to set themselves up in OPPOSITION to the plight of angry, disenfranchised loser kids? I’m afraid the only possible answer is: a really shitty heavy rock band. If by some quirk of fate you happen to be a grumpy older brother or sister reading this in the mid 1970s, then please, do the decent thing and provide your younger siblings with a Black Sabbath record, that they may see the path before them more clearly lit.

But anyway. As you might expect, this ‘gang’ (they dress like bikers, talk like sit-com beatniks and behave like prototype pseudo-punks) swiftly come into conflict with the eccentric park creator, during a highly amusing scene in which they flagrantly mock one of his dioramas, depicting a chained ape. (“Perfection? C’mon man, you call some baboon doin’ the herky-jerky perfection?” says Chopper). As punishment for their lack of respect, the ne’erdowells are lured into the park’s Chamber of Horrors, where they find themselves gassed or concussed by a series of cunning traps, their bodies deposited in the creator’s subterranean lair, where he has his wicked House-of-Wax style way with them. (Later we see him refashioning the female member of the gang as an automaton of a pioneer-era bride, exclaiming “I’ll make a real American of you yet” – the implied criticism of this transformation marking an odd deviation from this movie’s dominant anti-misfit/pro-conformity agenda.)

Mad though he may be, the park creator is nothing if not efficient, and by the time Kiss have concluded the first night of their residency at the park (we see them playing a forgettable number extolling the virtues of ‘partying’ and ‘turning it up loud’, presumably the opening cut from whichever album they were giving the big push to crica ‘78), he has already fashioned robot doppelgangers of the band to further his evil schemes!

Unfortunately though, the robot Gene Simmons goes haywire and is unleashed upon the world earlier than planned, as he (it?) breaks through a wall cartoon-style, duffs up some security guards and demolishes a lemonade stand! The stunned onlookers don’t know what’s going on. They thought Kiss were the good guys! It’s shocking!

Now, I was kind of assuming we’d be introduced to Kiss-as-characters here via, say, a backstage scene where they towel off and swap banter of the “boy, tough crowd in these theme-parks” variety. But no. Because GET THIS: Kiss in the movie are not merely costumed rock stars raking in the nation’s pocket money, they are bone fide supernatural beings – mystical cosmic warriors with the ability to read minds, fly, fire laser-beams from their eyes and partake in gravity-defying kung-fu battles. Throughout the film, band members are never referred to by their real names: they are 100% in-character as Space Ace, Star Child, Catman and The Demon.

As higher echelon Kiss Army members will no doubt be aware, Kiss’s powers derive from a set of four golden ‘talismans’, each taking the form of an elemental symbol reflecting the role of each Kiss member within the group. Kiss keep these talismans in a lead-lined suitcase, which is protected by a forcefield installed in their personal accommodation. As they explain at one point to the film’s lovelorn heroine, each of us has the power within us to ‘materialise’ our own talisman and take on our own superpowers, joining Kiss in the ranks of the Ubermensch. We just don’t, that’s all. Because we’re lame.

Perhaps due to its complete reversal of expectation, the scene that does eventually introduce us to Kiss is perhaps my favourite moment in ‘Phantom of the Park’, from a choice of many potential favourites. Following the faux-Demon’s polite rampage, a deputation from the park management seek out Kiss to demand an explanation. They find the band seated at the far end of a hotel swimming pool, chilling atop high, tennis umpire style chairs, silver towels draped over their heads, in silent communion with cosmic forces. Kiss speak to each other in a kind of character-specific private language, casually chatting over the heads of their visitors, as if they were corrupt feudal princes receiving a deputation of peasants. The poor shlubby security dudes, who were presumably expecting to merely lay down the law to a bunch of run-of-the-mill hell-raising rockers, get all hot and bothered and generally just don’t know what to make of it.

Now that our lofty heroes have been alerted to the threat facing them, much of the rest of the film is comprised of lengthy nocturnal fight scenes, in which Kiss meet the minions of the park-creator in deadly combat. First they head to the interior of the splendid wooden rollercoaster, to fight some kinda monkey-headed creatures in rubber suits. Next, they move on to an amphitheatre, and fight a series of robotic samurais and kung-fu bad-asses who emerge one by one from an elevator shaft.

I realise I’ve conveyed those notions to you in but two short sentences, but please, take some time to reflect on the fact that these sequences go on for a long time, and feature laser-beams, anti-gravity slo-mo flying kicks and short-circuiting robots, set to a relentless soundtrack of chicken-scratch heavy ‘fight scene funk’, all of which made served to make me very happy indeed as I began to drift into early morning unconsciousness.

Meanwhile of course, the Phantom has sent a mind-controlled dupe to steal Kiss’s talismans from their hotel suite, so by the time the band enter the Chamber of Horror and start mixing it up with the Frankensteins and mummies and so, their powers have deserted them and they soon find themselves captive in the Phantom’s liar! (He keeps them in a big iron cage conveniently overlooking his, uh, computer consoles and stuff, that they may watch him bring his schemes to fruition.)

Naturally the Phantom’s first order of business is to dispatch his evil duplicates to replace Kiss at the next evening’s Kiss Concert. His plan, you see, is to have his Kiss clones perform violent and provocative material which will rouse their audience to a nihilistic fervour which will see them riot, destroying the park and discrediting both band and management!

This is a canny plan on the Phantom’s part, because as everyone knows, Kiss audiences in the 1970s were apt to literally act out the lyrics of their idols’ songs, as soon as they heard them, with no consideration for the consequences of their actions. This is why the band had to be extremely careful about their lyrical content, sticking strictly to discourse on such nebulous concerns as ‘partying’ and ‘crazy nights’, even as their heavy metal peers were free to tackle more challenging subject matter, be it drinking the blood of slaughtered innocents, shagging mermaids, discovering the ruins of lost Lemuria or Livin’ in a Ram’s Head. Kiss must have felt frustrated, being unable to tap into such potent and topical imagery for their own music, but with great power comes great responsibility.

And so, let us shudder as Evil Kiss take the stage and launch into a malodorous ode specially designed to propel listeners into a mindless, destructive rage! I mean, can you imagine it? A popular rock band playing grinding, monotonous music that urges people to “rip and destroy” and “tear down the walls”? It simply doesn’t bear thinking about. And, as sturdy examples of wholesome American youth, the kids in the crowd instantly smell a rat and are having none of it. Yes, the Phantom’s mistake was to underestimate the purity and singlemindedness of the Kiss Army, who now boo the Evil Kiss, turning away from their negative sentiments and demanding the return of their true heroes.

The Phantom’s other mistake of course was to leave the Real Kiss in a big cage within easy telekinetic reach of their talismans, allowing them to quickly regain their powers. Flying to the concert auditorium upon beams of stardust, they proceed to righteously kick the crap out of their doppelgangers as the audience cheers them on, reclaiming their instruments from the fallen clones and triumphantly launching into….. the exact same song they played in the earlier concert sequence! So Party On, Turn It Up Loud (but not too loud), God Bless America, and if you feel at all disgruntled with the corporate wonderland you’ve been born into, well… better keep it to yourself buddy, or some jerky House-of-Wax guy will probably pick you out to be turned into a mindless robo-zombie. Either that or Kiss will just turn up and beat your ass. I think that was basically the message. Something like that anyway – I dunno, I forget easy.

I’m sorry for lapsing so hard into interminable plot summation in this over-long review, but really it seemed the only way to express the wonderful totality of ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’. I mean, I just don’t really have much to say about the cinematography, y’know. It was good. I could see the colours. Most of the time I could understand what was going on. Hey, how ‘bout a Pepsi?


One of the best things about ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’ is that most of the dialogue sounds as if it’s been post-synced by Hanna Barbera voice actors, adding immensely to the overall charm of the endeavour, and providing a wealth of highly quotable, oddly enunciated nonsense for us all to enjoy. The aforementioned baboon exchange was probably my favourite, but I liked these ones a lot too;

#1: Star Child voiceover over shot of the park manager looking uncomfortable:

“He’s sweating the possibility we might pull out… he’s just plain sweating”

#2: Lovelorn heroine in search of her captured boyfriend asks two moustachioed security guards about the whereabouts of the park creator guy’s lab:

GUARD # 1: Oh, that’s underground.

GUARD #2: Yeah… waaaay underground.

I could carry on all day really, but the realisation that it’s a summer’s day outside and I’m sitting here transcribing chunks of the script from ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’ leads me to do the decent thing and leave it at that.


The corporate ident for Hendring, the Putney based company who put out this tape, is by far the most elaborate and confusing I can remember seeing. Basically it’s a sorta self-contained short film that features POV shots of a black-gloved burglar breaking into a darkened living room. There are Oscar silhouettes and pages from scripts on a glass table and a big VCR with a flashing ‘play’ button. There are a lot of different shots of these various elements. Eventually, the Oscars fall off the table. It’s sorta hard to describe, but probably worth the entry price alone if you happen to see any tapes originating from this presumably quite marginal operation.

(PLEASE NOTE: screengrabs in the above post are not mine. I pulled ‘em off other people’s sites, primarily this one:

and this one:

Hope nobody minds.)


The Goodkind said...

Ooooooo. Good score brother. Can I have a hit?

Ben said...

I just had a quick look on Amazon, and seemingly this movie is totally rare and stuff. Wow, I had no idea.

Needless to say, if I had the technology to copy or digitise VHS tapes, a hit would be heading your way Seth.

Soukesian said...

Hey, I really like Slade in Flame! (But, yes, it's a completely different proposition.)

Remember seeing the promo tie-in-comic for the Kiss film on sale in our local SF & comic emporium, and being told that the band had created limited numbers of blood-spattered copies by slashing their fingers over the printing presses.

Ben said...

Ha, wow - I bet they had some underpaid minions brought in slash their wrists for 'em, more likely...

Actually, doesn't the story go that they mixed some of their blood into the ink that the comic was printed with, so that every copy would have a tiny quantity of holy Kiss Blood..? I could be wrong though.

Anyway, yeah, I quite liked 'Slade in Flame' too - kinda charming, and a good laugh.