It’s a strange piece of pop culture history from a time when KISS ruled the world. A legendarily wacky production full of hilariously ridiculous anecdotes resulted in one awesomely bad made-for-TV movie, starring a super-powered KISS vs. an evil inventor and some robot imposters at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Here we’re taking a look at 10 things you never knew about KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
It was supposed to be A Hard Day’s Night meets Star Wars
NBC aired Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park a few days before Halloween, 1978. At the time, few things were bigger in pop culture than Star Wars and KISS. Worn out by rigorous touring and recording schedules and the worsening substance abuse problems of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, some of the KISS guys and the people around them saw comic books, television, and movies as the next logical steps for their larger than life personas: the Starchild, the Catman, the Spaceman, and the Demon. After all, the Beatles had made some cool movies, right? In a 2001 interview, Paul Stanley said the movie was sold to them as “Hard Day’s Night meets Star Wars.”
Of course, the $2 million TV movie turned out to be anything but that.
It was made by the same people who made Scooby Doo
Hanna Barbera, the famous cartoon studio behind The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Yogi Bear were also responsible for Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. In the years since, some KISS fans have pointed out the movie’s similarities to one of the studio’s other famous properties: Scooby Doo, complete with the mad scientist and theme park. Joseph Barbera, while promoting the TV movie, compared it to The Phantom of the Opera. In a 2004 interview, Peter Criss said he was “disgusted” with the story overall and the finished product in general. “I can’t see John Lennon getting beat up by Dracula,” he explained. “And I can’t see Mick Jagger wrestling with Frankenstein.”
It was directed by a Hitchcock protege
Gene Simmons was a huge horror movie fan, so he was undoubtedly thrilled when the production hired German-born British director Gordon Hessler, who worked with Alfred Hitchcock and directed three different movies starring Vincent Price. According to a great retrospective at Coming Soon, Hessler himself was confused as to how and why he got the job, often referring to the band as “the Kiss.” Which isn’t to say he never slummed it: he also directed episodes of Wonder Woman and CHiPs.
The catman was replaced by Smurfman
Kids at home watching KISS Meets the Phantom were treated to Paul Stanley’s New York accent, but were otherwise deprived of hearing their mysterious heroes voices, aside from the concert scenes, which were filmed in front of 8,000 fans who got to see Kiss at Magic Mountain for free. Paul’s speaking voice was for real, but all of Gene’s lines were channeled through a bunch of reverb, to make him sound all roaring and “demon like.” Ace Frehley barely said more than “Ack.” And poor Peter, his entire voice was overdubbed in post-production, like Darth Maul. To add insult to injury, the voice actor who replaced him went on to voice Grouchy Smurf, Handy Smurf, and Lazy Smurf, ‘though Michael Bell was also Duke on TV’s G.I. Joe.
The Spaceman gets some blame for his “Ack”ting
The writers (who had about as much movie experience as KISS) spent some time with each of the guys to get a feel for who they were and how they talked. “When the script came in, Ace’s character never spoke. He only said ‘Awk.’ Ace was furious,” Simmons revealed in his book, Kiss and Make-Up. “He wanted to know why they didn’t give him any lines. 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.'” The “hurry up and wait” aspect of moviemaking gave Ace and Peter a lot of downtime to get loaded. The first draft of the script envisioned Ace as “monosyllabic and super-friendly. Communicating largely through gestures and sounds, Ace might be best described as an other-galactic Harpo Marx.”
The other Space Ace
In fact, Ace’s indifference toward the project, heavy drinking, and frustration with his lack of dialog led to one of the movie’s most epically awesomely bad highlights. Ace stormed off the set during filming for the battle in the chamber of horrors. His stunt double, who happened to be black, had to step in. The director either didn’t notice or didn’t care, which means the Spaceman very plainly changes ethnicity.
The Kiss solo albums
‘Though it’s all part of the legendary band’s lore nowadays, from their incredible heights to creative missteps like The Elder and back again, The Phantom was a miserable experience for the guys both during production and after it was released. It also happened to coincide with another monumental moment in Kisstory – the KISS solo albums. KISS had a huge hit with the Peter Criss led “Beth” and the drummer was grumbling about launching a solo career. Ace was feeling the itch, too. The band’s management suggested each guy make a solo album and release them all at once, maintaining a unified front to the world while calming the storm within. The band made the solo albums just after production finished on the movie. They were released in September 1978, a month before the film. Peter eventually left the band for the first time in 1980, with Ace behind him in ’82. The four original guys reunited for another Halloween time TV special, this time MTV’s Unplugged in 1995.
It was the second biggest TV movie of the year
Despite all of its problems, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park was the second biggest TV movie of the year, behind Shogun. Critics were not kind however and more importantly KISS fans rejected it, particularly the high school aged and older.
All four of them kept acting, anyway
Around the time the TV movie was released, Paul Stanley talked about it being the first step in a larger plan for KISS movies, promising the next one would be even more elaborate, and likening the KISS movie saga to the James Bond series. But all of them kept acting over the years. Gene gave it the most serious go of any of them, starring as the villain in the Tom Selleck sci-fi cop movie Runaway in 1984 and as a radio DJ in the heavy metal themed horror film Trick Or Treat in 1986. Ace was in the 2005 indie film Remedy with Sopranos veterans Frank Vincent and Vincent Pastore. Peter turned up in a 2002 episode of the HBO prison drama Oz. And Stanley actually went to Broadway and starred in that famous story the Hanna Barbera people mentioned, Phantom of the Opera. Speaking of Hanna Barbera, KISS eventually teamed up with Scooby-Doo, in 2015’s Scooby-Doo! and KISS: Rock and Roll Mystery. They even recorded a new song for the straight to DVD affair.
We can talk about this movie now
Kiss Meets the Phantom was so rushed, with such poor effects and even worse acting, that the band was angry and embarrassed about it for decades. Legend has it that people were forbidden from even mentioning the movie in the band’s presence for years. They’re a lot more open about it now of course, answering questions about it in books and documentaries. Like the KISS dolls, comics, lunchboxes and Halloween costumes or Vinnie Vincent’s Ankh Warrior, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park maintains a special place in the KISS legacy, a larger than life Kisstory we cherish.