By 1978 Kiss were the reigning kings of hard rock. They weren’t just musicians but larger-than-life comic-book superheroes. The band were a veritable multi-million dollar enterprise away from recording and the concert stage. Mining the big bucks with their newly christened Kiss Army fan club, Kiss blatantly exploited their colourful Kabuki visages, which were plastered on all sorts of merchandise, from dolls to lunchboxes to boardgames.
At the height of Kiss-mania, manager Bill Aucoin, a veteran TV director, saw that the next logical step for the masked marauders was to go Hollywood and do their own film. Envisaged as a cross between Star Wars and A Hard Day’s Night, Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park was a celluloid abomination, one of those ‘scratch your head’ turkeys that now, almost three decades since its premiere, is celebrated as a must-see cult film, celebrated for its campiness, and cheesy period charm by Kiss fans.
The main problem besides the terrible script, B-level actors (aside from Anthony Zerbe) and wafer-thin plot which concerned a deranged amusement park creator, Abner Deveraux, intent on foisting a fake Kiss on the world, was that Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter couldn’t act to save their lives.
The immortal Oscar-winning line “Ack!”, uttered by Ace Frehley, was just one of the classic pieces of dialogue in this stinker.
Clearly, this wasn’t the Citizen Kane of rock movies, it was more like the Citizen Inane of music films. Yet for the die-hard Kiss fan, there are flashes of brilliance that make viewing the film a little less painful. Truth be told, the concert footage shot at Magic Mountain Amusement Park in Valencia, California, does capture the excitement and insanity of Kiss’s legendary live extravaganza.
“We went out to film the concert at the park and there were 30,000 people there,” the late Joseph Barbera of Hanna/Barbera fame stated. “They had their set, which was worth a million dollars, and when they did their songs it was incredible."
Directed by Gordon Hessler, renowned for his work shooting low-budget horror films, the band were reportedly so unprepared for their thespian duties that they had to be fed their dialogue line by line.
“They had hired a pretty good director,” recalls Kiss manager Bill Aucoin, “but when the director tried to get great scenes out of Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter it took twice as long because they had never done it before. It wasn’t their fault. So Hanna/Barbera came in and they fired the director and got someone else.”
Part of the problem was with the film’s producers, Hanna/Barbera, best known for their animated success with The Flintstones, The Jetsons and Yogi Bear.
“It was a television film and they thought they could get away with it for a lot less money,” says Bill Aucoin.
Adds Al Ross, then vice president of Aucoin Management: “The film was originally going to be shown in theatres, then it turned into a TV movie. In the very beginning it was looked upon as a low-budget job and that’s not what it was supposed to be.”
While shooting the film, relationships within Kiss were at an all-time low. Drummer Peter Criss remembers: “At that time in ’78, I was doing cocaine and drinking and getting crazy. I remember how hard it was getting up at six in the morning and being in make-up at eight. And they would cake it on, putting on three or more layers, so if you wanted to rest you couldn’t.
"If you moved your head you’d mess it all up again. And I didn’t like the waiting. We were so used to getting on stage and going at it. No one told us we were going to be sitting for a long time. For me, I’m such a hyper guy, I’d go in and the minute the make-up was on, I’d break open a beer and I’d start partying.”
“There was a lot of tension on the set,” agrees Al Ross. “It was very stressful for the band. There was conflict on every day of the film shoot. For Gene and Paul this was the ultimate thing they could be doing, to be on the big screen. But Ace and Peter, psychologically or subconsciously, thought all it was going to do was keep this Kiss thing going.
"I think it was time for them to get out. The fact that Kiss’s ballad Beth was such a big hit inflamed Peter’s ego. Peter took the lead vocal on Beth and from that point on all he wanted to do was put a tuxedo on and go play Las Vegas like Frank Sinatra."
Reportedly, Criss was so out of control that all his dialogue had to be redone by a voice actor. “They said that my voice stunk. Yes, I was stoned all the time. So was Ace. We were both partying animals at that point in our career. We had broads in our trailer, six, seven broads at a time in our trailer. I mean every fucking day, with the make-up on! The refrigerator was loaded with beer. We were into coke. We were just animals. We made Tommy Lee (Mötley Crüe) look like a child. We were fucking them in the back, the front, the bathrooms. We were just crazy.
“So I was exhausted and maybe my voice did sound like shit. I think whoever they got to replace me just blew it. At least they could have gotten a guy who sounds closer to me than that. I got so many letters from Kiss fans saying: ‘What the fuck is this! How dare this guy use someone else’s voice!’”
Guitarist Ace Frehley reveals some unknown trivia about the film. “My stunt man was black! Putting white makeup on him did the trick, but they had to put flesh make-up on his hands. 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.
"So my stunt man stood in for me. There was a closeup shot and you can definitely tell that it’s not me. When he gets knocked against the wall by Dracula or somebody, if you freeze frame it, it’s obvious that it’s not me.”
Another piece of trivia concerns Rip & Destroy, the one ‘new’ song featured. “We were supposed to do the music for the film,” vocalist/rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley recalls. “We had no time and there was one key song that they needed at the end. So we said: ‘Great, we’ll just write new words to the music of Hotter Than Hell. I went into a trailer and wrote some words and that was that. There was only one verse to the song.”
Premiering in America on NBC-TV on October 28, 1978, the film was ravaged by the critics but scored big in the ratings. Yet despite the audience response, thankfully for all concerned, Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park was the first and last of the band’s silver screen endeavours.
Looking back on this celluloid trainwreck, Paul Stanley reflects: “Due to circumstances out of our control, it turned out kind of distorted and embarrassing. The film just kept going off on tangents and by the time it was done I really didn’t have much to desire to see it.”
Adds bassist Gene Simmons: “It was interesting to make and also it was a learning curve. It taught me that the next time somebody said: ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,’ that you should still roll up your sleeves and stick your nose into it just to make sure. Because when the movie or anything comes out with your name on it ultimately you’re responsible for it.
"So it was interesting to do, but I don’t think it’s a very good movie.”