“I’m caught in a dream. So what! You don’t know what I’m goin’ through”
“Chopper don’t hurt nobody unless he wants to.”
Everyone has dreams. It’s our personal wishes, visions, and goals that make up so much of our passion and who we are as people. Putting your dreams out there is one of the bravest things you can do because we live in a world that is as harsh as it is incredibly fragile. Your hard work and heart have to combat the unforgiving whimsy and lack of understanding of not only your bosses, but the world at large. It is this sheer cruelty, this riptide of ignorance that will try to throttle you away from your dearest of wishes. When your back is against the wall, you will know exactly just want to do.
You have to create a robot version of the rock band Kiss to avenge you and your dreams!
This is exactly what master inventor and animatronics-creator Abner Devereaux does in the 1978 made for American television movie, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. The film has a bad reputation for being both terrible and hella-terrible, but has the gift of time shed a new light on this cult gem? Hell no. It’s a film involving Kiss having actual mystical powers battling a madman whose bread and butter is creating realistic animatronics for Magic Mountain. Okay, that actually sounds awesome and weirdly enough, it IS. Kiss Meets the Phantom is a bit like Beavis and Butthead’s evaluation of the band The Jesus Lizard. To quote Beavis, “They suck but they totally rule!” (For the record, I love The Jesus Lizard and think they just straight up were good.) This applies to Kiss Meets the Phantom. It technically sucks but yet, it totally rules!
Directed by veteran film and TV director Gordon Hessler and written by the team of Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday, who also worked on the Cheri Caffaro (you rotten sonofabitch, Ginger herself!) film, Too Hot to Handle (1977), Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park also sports the hardest of seventies-television-cheese street cred: it was produced by Hanna-Barbera Productions. HANNA-BARBERA. That’s right. The studio that gave us cartoons like The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo (which Kiss would appear on years later), are directly linked to this wonderful-horrible film. On paper, again, this sounds like a good move. After all, Kiss by 1978 had already appeared in the comics, including the twelfth issue of the Marvel series, Howard the Duck, as well as their own special issue in 1977. An over-the-top colorful scary but still safe for the younger members of the Kiss Army film debuting three days before Halloween, what could possibly go wrong?
Apparently a lot. Sure, the script is goonier than a carnival geek gnawing on his eighth chicken neck. Yes, Peter Criss is clearly dubbed and Ace Frehley’s stunt double is visibly a different ethnicity than the Spaceman. And okay, the subplot involves the film’s main heroine, Melissa (Deborah Ryan), who is so bland that she makes Karen Valentine look like Susan Tyrell and her inexplicably even blander boyfriend, Sam (Terry Lester). I get it. BUT, I cannot and steadfastly refuse to hate on this film. This title has brought me much joy and even a nearly-blissed out state of meditation. Why?
Got two words for you: Abner Devereaux.
Oh, and two more words. ANTHONY ZERBE.
Holy cats. Zerbe, a justifiably respected actor of stage and screen, sports a resume that includes everything from The Omega Man (1971) to David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (1983) to The Matrix Reloaded (2003.) There is literally nothing this man can’t do when it comes to acting. Literally a gift in everything he has graced, Zerbe commits some pure creative alchemy in Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park. Without Zerbe the film would be a barely memorable TV movie with some entertaining things. With Zerbe, it’s, to quote Ace, “a rocket ride!!!”
Zerbe took Abner Devereaux, who would have been an Always Save generic brand version of a Scooby Doo villain (in honor of the film’s producers), and gave him zest and yes, depth. This man took a mad scientist stereotype whose lab is literally set at an amusement park and has the superpower talent of making robots that are historical figures and made it somehow work. If that’s not a case of taking poo and turning it into poo-gold, then I don’t know what is.
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park was released in a few different versions. There’s the original one that aired in America featuring canned music that was typical of your made-for-TV productions of the late 1970’s and more footage featuring Ace Frehley, including the guitar legend cracking the line, “Ah…Beethoven’s Fifth!” Then there’s the Attack of the Phantoms cut, which is the English theatrical version, that features several Kiss and Kiss-solo songs in the soundtrack, some alternate shots and alas, less Ace dialogue, which is the price we pay for having better music. This is the version I am most familiar with since it’s the one featured on Volume Two of the Kissology set. Either version, you’re getting the fiery-hot-core of brilliance named Anthony Zerbe.
The film opens with Sam and Melissa, our Wonder White bread young lovers, laughing and cuddling on a roller coaster on a bright sunny day at Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park. Laugh it up, buckies, because your world is about to get SWERVED. This segues into one amazing intro sequence that features the members of Kiss superimposed over the park, making them look like giants while “Rock and Roll All Night” plays. (Look for the Paul Stanley ass shimmy. It is comedy gold, complete with one singular shimmery star on the ‘tock region.) Plus, you truly haven’t lived until you have seen Peter Criss play drums on a large amusement park ride.
Despite the blue sky and youthful bon vivants running around, the owner of the park, Calvin Richards (Carmine Caridi) aka The Mayor (TM Ralph Viera), is sweating bullets. His security guards are bunch of bumbles from Squaresville (including a young Brion James, who was eternally a welcome sight in film and TV) that worry about the carefree teens enjoying “…the spirit of the Park…,” meanwhile the trio of Satan’s Sassies in the form of Chopper (John Dennis Johnston), Slime (John Lisbon Wood), and Dee (Lisa Jane Persky) are going around, bullying kids and messing with some the park’s animatronics. Calvin’s got bigger worries though, with rock gods KISS about to arrive and some of the rides malfunctioning, along with their passionate creator, one Mr. Abner Devereaux.
Abner demands answers about the funding for “Freddy the Fox” and viciously inquires about “…these grotesque Kiss cutouts…” This beautiful, mad inventor pleads for more funding, imploring that he’s on the “…threshold of a major breakthrough…,” and then inquires how much the airplane banner proclaiming “Get Kiss’ed Tonight” (ugh, no…no…no…, not to be confused with “No No No” off of the bands shit-tastic 1987 album, Crazy Nights. The banner is better.) cost. When Calvin brings up some of the recent malfunctions, Abner states what is referred to in my household as, “Devereaux’s Axiom.” (TM C.F. Roberts.) This is? “Of course things malfunction! Every new piece of equipment has a shakedown period.”
A genius. A sensual, mad-hatter genius!
He catches Chopper and company hassling “Simon,” a robot-gorilla created by Abner that cost thirty-thousand dollars. Wait? An underpaid and uncredited actor in a shaggy Showbiz Pizza costume doing the robot cost that much? Oh Hollywood, you and your magic! Also, points to Abner already outshining the park’s security and trying to corner these hooligans. Dee’s defense of her dumb-dumb old man is gold, though. “Chopper don’t hurt nobody unless he wants to.” The only thing Chopper hurts is half-a-pack Schlitz malt liquor and himself, because he clearly does not have divine love in his heart.
Our true hero invites the trio to a private tour of his “Chamber of Thrills,” which sounds rather saucy! Unfortunately, it’s less Laura Gemser and Sylvia Kristel having a pillow fight with Franco Nero and John Saxon and more Frankenstein’s monster after the seafood buffet and Peter Tork’s twin whipping the dude from Aqualung. You can’t have everything. Meanwhile, Melissa is faithfully waiting for Sam to meet her at the snack bar while he finishes up his assistant shift with our man Abner. After waiting for quite awhile, she gets impatient and asks the guards where she can find Devereaux. They give her instructions to his high-tech workshop. She rings the doorbell, because of course he has a security cam. The man doesn’t want any mere riff-raff to interrupt his hard work. He kindly lets Melissa in, by smoothly intoning, “Do step inside.” Cary Grant has NOTHING on Zerbe and I’m being deadly serious. (Though I do love Cary Grant. C’mon, what philistine out there does not love Arsenic & Old Lace?)
He gives her a partial tour, trying to impress her with the realistic-skin on his creations (the slash net-fiction potential here is fierce), even asking her if she would like to touch it. C’mon! There’s no telling the amount of lurid sexy-time atrocities that have occurred in this workshop. He then has his barbershop quartet-bots sing while a near orgasmic level of bliss blooms over his smiling face. Melissa is clearly unworthy of such attentions and keeps asking about Sam. Greatness is often wasted on the unworthy. Abner brushes off her inquiries, saying that the Sam he knows has a “roving eye.” Seeing that Chopper, Slime and Dee are approaching the Chamber of Thrills, Abner quickly shoos off Melissa.
Oh, Sam is now controlled by Abner via some wee bit of wiring attached to the side of his neck.
The bad seed trio gets captured and kidnapped one by one via trap doors and android-monsters. Victory is achieved, but the winning glow is short-lived when Abner not only finds out that his “Americans on Parade” project is delayed but that Calvin is letting him go and none too smoothly. Abner asks if this is Calvin’s way of saying that he is crazy. Now, if you’re having to fire an employee and that is their response, you may want to make sure they exit the premises safely. But fair viewers, as you may have already gathered, logic does not live too snugly in this universe and that is not a bad thing.
The emotional gravitas and the fear of being outmoded, both as a person and a visionary is positively tangible here thanks to Zerbe, especially when he says the line, “There’s nothing for me outside the park.” This is followed by a haunting shot of Abner walking, looking initially shell shocked and lost, only to slide into vengeful knowing, while Gene’s solo song, “Mr. Make Believe” plays and fittingly so. His tool of vengeance? Kiss! His battle cry? “I will destroy you! All of you!” If you’re feeling faint right now, it’s from all of this straight up EROTICISM. Change your pants and grab the smelling salts.
Kiss play their first show as we get to hear “Shout it Out Loud” and Abner has Sam go out and take pictures of all of the members afterwards. Melissa spots him and calls out his name, but he walks by her, completely oblivious. Kiss notice this and Paul uses his telepathic laser power (?) to see Melissa’s plight and defend her against the guards, who have mistaken her for an overly zealous member of the Kiss Army. Oh and Gene roars like a lion. Sure.
The next day, Melissa shows back up at Abner’s, who graciously gives her a security pass, because he is a beautiful, kind man. Sure, there might be a hidden camera in it, but c’mon? He’s mad! Madly amazing. Her search is still empty, though Kiss try to comfort her with Peter singing, “Beth.” Dude, her name is Melissa. Also, why not “Nothing to Lose?” That’s a Peter Criss vocal I can get behind and it’s about sodomy. BONUS!
Abner sends Sam to nab the band’s talismans…excuse me….even typing that out, I’m laughing over here. What a resplendent sentence to type! Even better, when the band show Melissa their talismans and no, not the kind that are alluded to in “Plaster Caster,” she responds with, “Unreal! I heard about your talismans!” No Hollywood comedy in the last twenty years can even come near the comedy gold that is them thar hills of this scripted line.
Even better, Abner’s robot version of Gene, whom by the way, makes a more convincing bot then 90% of the other bot actors, is sent out to wreak havoc, breaking through a brick wall and manhandling security, all in the goal of framing the rock and rollers. The next day, Calvin and the guards look for the band by the pool, with one of the security men saying “Rock and rollers don’t bathe!” Which is patently not true. This is not crust punk we’re talking about!
The dialogue is even better! It’s amazing. We have Ace greeting Gene with, “Hi, Curly!” which is hilarious and all of us Kiss fans already know the glory of the one and true Spaceman. You have Peter saying, “But Gene’s brother was an only child!” only to garner the retort of Paul warning, “Cool it Catman. They are serious.” Ace adds, “And they have guuuunnnsss.” Yes. Thank god for Kiss and especially for the Zerbe.
It’s only a matter of time before Abner strikes again, with the band battling a gang of robot-were-kitty-men, all set to Ace Frehley’s big hit, “New York Groove.” Christmas just came early. During this fight, Paul makes this face that is so epic, there are few words that can do it justice, but I’ll try. If Bruce Lee had a baby with the world’s most flamboyant rock and roll clown, the resulting love child would come close. But you just have to see it. It can only truly be seen and felt. Well that and Gene’s electronic-tinged growl of “DEVERRROOWW!”
But we all know who the REAL MAN is here and that’s Zerbe, baby, who responds from his bunker with “Are you addressing me, Demon? Hmm?? Hmmm???” Sweet tiny infant baby Jesus, YES! He soon successfully nabs the band, promising that “Armageddon is coming to this park!” Which amounts to evil-robot-Kiss (clearly a heavy influence on the climax of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, by the way) singing a version of “Hotter than Hell” re-titled “Rip & Destroy.” Kiss get free, through the powers of mutual telekinesis and battle their robot doppelgangers. Do they win? Do the Kiss Army riot? Does Melissa reunite with Sam? Can we blame evil robot Kiss for Hot in the Shade? What happens to Abner? I won’t spoil it but I will say that it makes even less sense than everything that proceeds it.
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park/Attack of the Phantom is as much of a ride as the ones you see in the film. As much as I may snark, I enjoy it immensely and honestly, can you really expect things like high-art or even sanity with a film with a plot like this? The band famously hated it for years, though I have read that Ace actually thinks it’s a gas, further proving that the Spaceman has the biggest amount of slack out of all of the past and current members. Plus, two of the four members are famously anti-drugs, so there is zero excuse for Gene and Paul being shocked that the film was ridiculous. Love them both, not unconditionally, but c’mon! When you’re in a film involving eye-lasers and robot-were-kitties, you should be well aware that it’s not going to be Star Wars or even Star Crash.
If you love your cult films on the far side of whimsy-town, 1970’s rock & roll, and have enough brains, hearts, and loins to appreciate Zerbe’s portrayal of Abner Devereaux, then you must purchase your Magic Mountain ticket and strap yourself in. The only real downside is the thought of what else could have emerged if this film had taken off. Would we have gotten to see Foghat meeting Count Dracula or KC & the Sunshine Band vs The Zodiac Killer?
Only in our dreams will we ever know.