On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age.
First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing.
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Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.
The Pitch: Let Me Own This Blu-Ray Before I’m Buried in My Official KISS-Branded Coffin
Few musical acts in American history have done more with less than KISS. Despite boasting some of the simplest and most uninspired (if occasionally very catchy) songs of the 1970s, the shock rock act built a loyal following and merchandising empire around the novel idea of wearing makeup while singing. Their onstage theatrics and commitment to rock and rolling all night and partying every day — tons of people can do one or the other, but a rarified few have the time for both — have turned the KISS Army into one of the most passionate fanbases in American music. Their unfailing marketing department has milked that passion for every cent it’s worth, selling those militaristic fans everything from themed coffins and cruises to about a dozen farewell tours. One of the ironclad laws of the music business is that if you slap KISS on something, there will always be a market for it. The one exception to that rule might be “KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.”
Even by the low standards of fictional movies that star musicians as themselves, a subgenre that includes Herman’s Hermits appearing in a film about greyhound racing, “KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park” is a misfire. The 1978 TV movie, directed by Gordon Hessler and produced by Hanna-Barbara, was conceived as a hedge against what then seemed like an inevitable decline in the popularity of songs like “Hotter Than Hell.” The band’s management wisely — if ultimately incorrectly — suspected that the gimmick of playing three-chord rock songs in stage makeup was reaching the end of the line. As a result, the band tried to transition to a profession that has always been welcoming to guys in makeup: fighting supervillains.
Rather than a conventional film about rock stardom like “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Phantom of the Park” was viewed by many as an attempt to re-brand KISS as a superhero IP that could continue to print money as musical tastes changed. Band members Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, and Peter Criss play versions of themselves that each possess a talisman that grants them superpowers. Their life as rock stars rarely necessitates the use of these powers, but they’re always available when they need them.
As it turns out, they end up needing them. As the band prepares to perform at a fictional theme park known as Magic Mountain, a scheming animatronics designer named Abner Devereaux begins to lament the fact that a rock concert will overshadow his creations for a night. In his lair underneath the park, he begins hatching a plot to sabotage the show by crafting evil animatronic doppelgängers of the band members. But the fake KISS is no match for… the good fake KISS that has superpowers.
It goes without saying that the attempt to turn KISS into action stars did not work; it’s frankly still astounding that the attempt to turn them to rock stars worked in the first place. With few redeeming qualities except some delightfully cheesy special effects, “KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park” has been left on the scrap heap of lost midnight movies. No official version is currently available to purchase or stream, and multiple cuts of the film were released in different countries under the alternate titles “Attack of the Phantoms” and “Kiss Phantoms.” As such, it has turned into a Holy Grail for KISS Army infantrymen and midnight movie aficionados alike.
The film’s scarcity is a glaring omission from a band that has slapped its logo and likeness on every product under the sun. It’s high time that KISS embraces their laughable attempt at movie stardom and offers fans an official chance to watch this cult classic. Having just wrapped their End of the Road farewell tour, the band should have plenty of time to work on a restoration — a remastered Blu-Ray would be a perfect addition to the merch booth at the reunion tour. —CZ
The Aftermath: Just Bankroll “Marvel’s Five Nights at Freddy’s: The Eras Tour,” You Cowards
It’s a disturbing reality of the Gen X/millennial divide that Gene Simmons, known to countless ‘70s music fans as a bonafide rock n’ roll icon, is the dude who ate out Lois Griffin to me. Yes, “Family Guy” introduced me to KISS sometime in the mid-aughts, inextricably linking Simmons and his legendary tongue to a bout of implied cartoon cunnilingus that will no doubt rattle around in my brain forever.
Up until Zilko blessed me with “Phantom of the Park,” that sexed-up spoof version of the KISS bassist was my primary pop culture reference for the entire four-person rock outfit. In fact, it wasn’t until 2022, when I had some black-and-white “Terrifier” makeup I was attempting for a Halloween costume go sideways (not the point, but Art the Clown would make for an excellent opening act whenever KISS gets back on tour) that I even found out which platform-wearing band member was which.
Watching this astounding misadventure in celebrity super-heroics, you can imagine my frustration finding out I would have to commit yet another layer of KISS identification to my stunted taxonomy. And yet, Starchild, the Demon, Space Ace, and Catman found homes in my midnight movie-loving heart much faster than their human alter egos. Maybe it was the literal stars in Ace’s eye, those pitch-black cloaks and lifeguard chairs, or the fact that I simply cannot and will not resist any project that so earnestly presents lines like, “The only laughter in my amusement park will be the laughter of the gods!” But something about this ridiculous KISS-sponsored superhero cash-grab hugely endeared me to the has-been hall of famers and their zany history. What’s more, it reminded me how just a few decades spent marinating in the ol’ Hollywood archives can transform a bad movie into a treasured collector’s item. (Once again, I am asking, how can I stream “Spiceworld” in the U.S.? American Spice Girlies are languishing!)
To deny “Phantom of the Park” as an essential element of official KISS canon seems like a missed opportunity to court fresh fans for a group that hasn’t released a new song since 2012. The overlapping Venn diagram between music journalism and film criticism means projects like these too often get overlooked when it comes to anniversaries, but had I known this delightful shit show was out there sooner, my interest would have almost certainly piqued enough to check it out sometime in the past year. With the recent box office successes of “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” and “Five Nights at Freddy’s” flanked by the seemingly evergreen appeal of Marvel movies, there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll get an encore of this kind of deep-cut someday. And until then, can we get this bad boy streaming on KISS+? —AF
IndieWire After Dark publishes midnight movie recommendations at 11:59 p.m. ET every Friday. Read more of our deranged suggestions…
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