Monday, January 25, 2010

Issue #10: KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) and Terror on Tour (1980)

In the fall of 1978 KISS was big stuff. I know because I was about to turn 10 and I loved them more than anything in the world with the possible exception of Charlie's Angels. In the previous four years the group had released 6 studio albums (Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, Dressed to Kill, Destroyer, Rock and Roll Over, and Love Gun), 2 iconic live albums, and a greatest hits collection.  None of which my mother would allow me to own. But my friend Stephanie did have them and we listened to them endlessly in her bedroom, often while drawing the KISS makeup on each other with Halloween greasepaint and--on one memorable occasion--Magic Marker.

Interestingly, KISS had yet to have a huge hit. Their highest-charting single was "Beth," which reached #7 despite initially being the b-side to the "Detroit Rock City" single and sounding nothing at all like the group (in fact apart from Peter Criss's vocals none of the band members play on the song). Despite this they were one of the most popular and successful bands in the world, and their name and the likenesses of the band members appeared on everything from lunch boxes to trading cards to dolls, again none of which I was allowed to have.

To take advantage of this popularity the group's management and record label devised a plan to launch KISS into super orbit with a one-two punch to the stomach of American popular culture. The first step was the simultaneous release (on September 18, 1978) of four solo albums designed to highlight the personalities of the members of KISS. Then, a month later, came the airing of what has since become known as one of the greatest disasters in rock and roll history. Even worse than the ill-advised From Justin to Kelly movie that was supposed to make stars out of the winner and runner-up of the first season of American Idol.

We're talking, of course, about the craptastic KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. This deliciously horrible vehicle aired on Saturday night, October 28, on NBC and was the one of the network's highest rated programs of the year. Yet it has been the fly in the ointment of success for the band ever since.

Gene Simmons has said that the movie was initially pitched to them as "A Hard Day's Night meets Star Wars," which I suppose sounded like a good idea at the time. The fact that it was being produced by Joseph Barbera of the Hanna-Barbera company might have given them pause given that the company was best known for its animated shows including Scooby Doo, Josie and the Pussycats, Hong Kong Phoey, Jabberjaw and about a million other campy classics well known to those of us who spent our Saturday mornings glued to the television. And they might possibly have been concerned that the film's writers, Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday, had only one previous writing credit, a sexploitation film titled Too Hot to Handle about a hitwoman whose "deadliest weapon is her body."

But that didn't stop them from saying okay. Neither did the fact that none of them had any acting experience whatsoever. And some of us will be forever grateful that they did say yes. Because KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park is pure joy from start to finish.

The plot, such as it is, is simple. Abner Devereaux is a scientific genius who works for the Magic Mountain theme park. He is particularly interested in robotics, and has created some very lifelike ones that he plans to use in educational attractions such as Spaceland and a recreation of the American War of Independence. In the meantime he is supposed to be overseeing the safety of the park's more conventional rides. Only he doesn't because roller coasters are stupid.

Fun Fact:  Abner Devereaux is played by character actor Anthony Zerbe, who had parts in virtually every 70's series including The Wild Wild West, Bonanza, Mission: Impossible, Gunsmoke and Mannix.

Abner's boss, Calvin Richards, is concerned that Abner is spending too much time and money on his pet projects. Also, he's worried that the park is losing money, although I don't know why because it looks packed. But he is. So he kind of suggests that Abner cool it with his "research" and do his job.

Fun Fact:  Calvin is played by Carmine Caridi, who played Phyllis's boss Dan Valenti on Phyllis and had small parts on Rhoda and Alice. He is perhaps best known for playing Angelo Martelli, the cab driver father of keyboard prodigy Bruno Martelli on the TV series Fame. Unfortunately, in 2004 Caridi became the first member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to be expelled for providing copies of Oscar screener DVD's to a pirater.

I imagine that you're wondering what KISS has to do with any of this. So were a lot of other people, since half an hour into the 2-hour movie the band had yet to make an appearance. They had been mentioned, though, as they were going to appear in a series of shows at Magic Mountain and most of the parkgoers are running around in KISS makeup.

Two of the people running around the park are the lovely Melissa and her fiance Sam, although they aren't wearing KISS makeup. Sam works for Abner Devereaux doing something that's never really explained and doesn't matter as that's the least of the film's issues. I don't know what Melissa does, but she has pretty hair.

So Sam and Melissa are running around enjoying themselves and Calvin is fretting and Abner is stewing. Then along come three troublemaking punks called Chopper, Slime, and Dirty Dee. They do things like cut in line and make fun of an animatronic gorilla, which annoys Abner and puts him in an even worse mood. So he gives them passes to the Chamber of Thrills, where Chopper pops a little girl's balloon with his cigarette and the trio makes fun of the animatronic monsters. But then the joke is on them as one by one they fall into Abner's traps and slide down a chute into the lab. The scene where Dirty Dee is trapped inside an Iron Maiden is particularly delightful, and I'm sorry that no still images do it justice or I would have put them here.

Okay, so Sam tells Melissa that he has to go to the lab to help Devereaux and that she should sit around and wait for him. She decides to have a Coke and a couple of guys flirt with her but she loves Sam so she acts all offended. Meanwhile Sam is at the lab, where he finds a door open, steps into a room he's apparently never seen despite working there for months, and screams as the door slides shut. At this point we start to think that maybe something ungood has happened to him.

Having finished her Coke, Melissa is wandering around looking for Sam and not finding him. Someone tells her to check the lab, so she does. Abner brushes her off, though, and she goes away looking sad.

Now everyone is setting up for the big KISS show. Calvin decides this is a great time to fire Abner, who gets a little pissed and storms off. He goes back to the lab and watches the work continue on his computer screen, muttering, "I will destroy you. I will destroy you all!" Which sounds like a threat if you ask me.

And now KISS finally shows up. Actually, they descend from the skies. Oh, and Paul shoots laser beams from his eyes and Gene breathes fire and it's all very odd. But cool. And then they sing "Shout It Out Loud," which isn't the best KISS song but it's okay and we're just glad they're there so we sing along.

While KISS sings Devereaux is back in the lab turning Chopper, Slime, and Dirty Dee into Revolutionary War figures. Sam is helping him, and it's pretty clear Sam is a robot as well. It's never explained how this happens, but then we only have two hours and there's not a lot of time for complicated sciencey stuff. Besides, Abner sends Sam out to take pictures of KISS because he wants to make robot versions of them, and that's way more interesting.

When Sam appears at the concert venue Melissa waves her hands and calls to him but the guards are all, "You don't have a backstage pass so go away." That is until Gene Simmons yells, "Starchild!" in this weird echoey demon voice and Paul shoots beams from his eyes that make Melissa walk toward them and Gene explains that they can read her mind and so on.

Now things happen very quickly, so try to keep up.

Devereaux uses the pictures Sam took to make a Gene robot. The robot then attacks some security guards and there's a lot of fire and knocking down of walls made of Styrofoam bricks and Gene clomping all over the place in his trademark dragon boots and leather pants with holes cut out of them.

The next day the head of security, Sneed, who hates rockers and says they don't bathe, tracks down KISS and finds Paul, Peter, and Ace sitting around the pool on these super-tall chairs and wearing hooded robes made out of glittery fabric. Sneed tells them that Gene attacked the guards and Peter and Ace make some silly jokes that don't make any sense. Then Gene shows up and growls a lot.

Melissa, meanwhile, has gone back to the lab to see what she can find out about Sam. This time Abner is a little nicer to her and gives her this pin that he says will allow her access to any part of the park so that she can look for Sam. She thinks this is really nice of him and doesn't push the issue.

Eventually she runs into KISS again and asks them for help finding Sam. They take her into the pool house where they're staying and show her a box containing glowing talismans that they say give them superpowers. I know, this is a surprise to almost everyone, except Melissa says she's heard about the talismans but didn't think they were real. I didn't get that issue of Tiger Beat so this was news to me too and I was hoping they would explain where they got the talismans and from whom.

They don't, though. Paul does, however, get all Up With People! and tells Melissa (who says she wishes that she had powers) that we all do have special powers and just don't know it. Which you know made a whole lot of people who watched KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park try to shoot laser beams out of their eyes for weeks and end up really disappointed.

Hey, I was 10. And Paul said we all have special powers.

Now there's another concert and KISS plays "Stole Your Love" and back in the lab Abner tells Sam to go steal the talismans, which he knows about because the special pin he gave Melissa is really a bug and he's heard everything. So Sam goes and tries to take the talismans but he can't because they're protected by a mystical force field and he has to go away empty handed.

Their concert over, KISS comes back to the house with Melissa and they all sit around a fountain while Peter sings "Beth," only Melissa gets bored and wanders off and encounters Sam coming out of the house and she realizes he's some kind of robot and screams.

That's when KISS comes running and see that someone has monkeyed with their talismans. This bothers them so they go in search of Devereaux to say, "Dude, what's your problem?" Only Abner is one step ahead of them and sends some albino werewolf robots to stop them. When they don't prove to be a match for KISS and their magic powers he sends robotic martial artists to give it a try and they almost accomplish the deed but Ace manages to teleport everyone away with a hitchhiking thumb gesture and so now we know what his power is. Peter Criss, by the way, gets totally shafted as his Catman character doesn't get any powers except being super agile, which might have something to do with what happened in real life after the movie was made. But we'll get to that later.

Somewhere during all of this Devereaux has made a ray gun to zap the power out of the talismans and he sends Sam back to get them. KISS, unsure where to go, sit on a carousel. Then they go to the Chamber of Thrills and like Chopper and Slime and Dirty Dee before them are attacked by the mechanical monsters (which are totally played by real people) and get sucked up into some tubes and captured by Abner.

Now it's the next night. KISS hasn't shown up for their concert, which is making Calvin anxious and makes Melissa all hysterical because no one will tell her what's going on. The crowd isn't very happy about it either and they're getting rowdy. But then KISS shows up and everyone is excited.

Only it isn't KISS! It's the robot KISS! But the audience doesn't know that and they go wild as KISS launches into "Hotter Than Hell."

But it soon becomes clear that something is wrong. Instead of singing the expected lyrics, robot KISS sings something different:

"It's time for everyone to listen good.
We've taken all we can stand.
You've got the power to rip down these walls.
It's in the palm of your hand."

I know, not nearly as fun as the real lyrics. And the chorus is even worse:

"Rip! Rip! Rip and destroy! You know the hour's getting late.
Rip! Rip! Rip and destroy! Break it down and seal your fate."

Okay. Well. The fans don't much like this change and they get angry. But that's all part of Devereaux's plan. See, he wants to work them into a frenzy so that they tear Magic Mountain apart. Apparently with their bare hands. I'd like to see how they manage disassembling the rides without wrenches and whatnot, but I'll let that go.

Something does bother me at this point, though. What with all the religious folks (a.k.a. my mother) hating KISS and insisting that the name really stood for Kings In Satan's Service and that their lyrics were going to corrupt young people and make them drink beer and sass back, you'd think the one thing they might not want to suggest is that lyrics can pervert innocent minds. But by that point they were probably just hoping to get the whole thing over with and decided to worry about it later.

Back in Devereaux's lab the real KISS are indeed worrying. They need to get their talismans back. But how? Oh, right, Paul remembers that if they all think really hard the talismans will levitate and come to them. So that takes care of that.

Now Ace does the thumb thing again and they teleport to the concert, where they get into a fight with their robot selves and we try to ignore the fact that Ace's double is clearly African-American and doesn't look like him at all. When the robots are destroyed KISS sings "Rock and Roll All Nite" and everyone calms down and doesn't want to rip and destroy anymore.

When it's all over the gang reconvenes in Devereaux's lab. Only he's dead and looks like a dried-up mummy or possibly Martin Landau. They never explain how he died (and if you are kind you will ignore the fact that you can see Zerbe blink while they're all staring at his dead self) but no one cares because all that matters is that he can't be evil anymore. Oh, and Paul finds this little circuit implanted in Sam's neck and uses his laser eyes to remove it and Sam is okay again.

KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park aired only one time. However, a reworked version called Attack of the Phantoms was released outside of the U.S. and did pretty well even though there are no phantoms in it. The differences between the two versions aren't huge, but KISS fans love to talk about them. If you want a thorough scene-by-scene comparison you can find one at the website of K.F. Louie.

The biggest difference (apart from a revised ending in which Devereaux is alive) is that Attack of the Phantoms gets rid of the generic music used in KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park and replaces it with songs from the group's four solo albums, which if you ask me was a great idea and should have been done in the first place. Also, Ace has fewer lines. Why? Well, when they were writing the script the screenwriters spent time with the group members to get a sense of their characters. Only Ace didn't want to do it, so all he said when they were around was, "Ack!" As a result, in the original script all his character says is, "Ack!" Ace didn't think this was funny and threatened to walk, so they gave him a couple of lines. But in Attack of the Phantoms it's back to "Ack!"

Speaking of lines,  Peter Criss's dialogue in the film was overdubbed by Michael Bell, who also gave voice to numerous cartoon characters including Zan of the Wonder Twins, several of the Smurfs, and numerous G.I. Joe characters. As an actor he played Kate Jackson's ex-husband Bill Duncan in an episode of Charlie's Angels.

It may come as a surprise to hear that the members of KISS were not entirely thrilled with the movie. In fact it's rumored that for years anyone who worked with them was ordered never to mention the film in their presence. Apparently they thought it made them look silly. I can't imagine why.

You may also be surprised to hear that the writers of the film weren't exactly in demand following their masterpiece. But one star did emerge from the wreckage of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. Terry Lester, who played Sam, went on to fame in soaps, including stints in The Young and the Restless playing Jack Abbott, Santa Barbara playing Mason Capwell, and As the World Turns playing Royce Keller. He was nominated for Daytime Emmy Awards in 1984, 1985, 1986, and 1987 but never won. He died of a heart attack on November 28, 2003, a month after the 25th anniversary of the airing of Phantom.

What? Oh, Melissa. Right. She was played by Deborah Ryan. Prior to her work in KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park Ryan was best known for playing bubbly sorority girl Bobbie in the delicious made-for-TV witchcraft movie The Initiation of Sarah alongside Shelley Winters, Morgan Fairchild, and Morgan Brittany. Another of Deborah Ryan's co-stars in Sarah was Kay Lenz, who was married at the time to David Cassidy. Later Ryan would co-star with Cassidy in his short-lived series David Cassidy--Man Undercover. She also had bit parts in shows including BJ and the Bear and The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo.

The curse of the Phantom seemed to stay with KISS. Within the year Peter Criss had officially left the band and Ace Frehley was deep into substance abuse and had one foot out the door. Although the band's next album, Dynasty, would be one of their bestselling and spawn the hit "I Was Made for Lovin' You," their popularity declined and subsequent albums didn't fare nearly as well. But don't feel too bad for them. Their fans, the steadfastly loyal KISS Army, continue to make them one of the most successful live acts of all time.

Finding KISS Meets the Phantom of the Opera is not particularly difficult. Although for years it was unavailable except for a VHS release and a brief appearance on DVD, KISS fans have kept it alive and copies can be found on ebay and other sites. The Attack of the Phantoms version finally saw the light of day when it was included on the 2007 release Kissology Vol. 2 (1978-1991). That version contains commentary from cast members Carmine Caridi and Deborah Ryan, although I have no idea if they have anything interesting to say because I couldn't bear to watch the movie a third time.

Encouraged by the success of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, and apparently undeterred by its horribleness, in 1980 producer Sandy Cobe decided he wanted to make a horror movie centered around a band of makeup-wearing musicians called The Clowns. The similarities to KISS are undeniable, as the group uses whiteface and black mask-like makeup to create their alter egos. Oh, they also wear giant black afro wigs with white stripes that make them look like the love children of Bootsy Collins and Pepe Le Pew.

For the music used in the film Cobe turned to Chicago rock band The Names. The group, comprised of Rick Styles, Chip Greenman, Rich Pemberton, and Dave Galuzzo, had had minor success with the single "Why Can't It Be?" and its (arguably better) b-side "Baby You're A Fool."

Take a listen:

Why Can't It Be?
The Names

Baby You're A Fool
The Names

I'm not sure why Cobe thought of The Names. Maybe because they were often compared to Cheap Trick. But when you hear the music played by The Clowns in Terror on Tour and compare it to the group's singles, you might wonder too.

Anyway, he called their manager and asked if he could use their songs. The group, which had broken up some time before, was happy to reunite and go into the studio to record songs for the movie. Then someone suggested that the boys in the band play the band in the movie.

And thus were four stars born.

Okay, not really. None of them appeared in anything else. But they're the stars of this movie, so technically they're stars.

Terror on Tour is not a complicated film. The Clowns are on the rise. Audiences love their stage show, in which they dismember female mannekins and pretend to kill their background dancers. There's a lot of blood and gory imagery and everyone thinks it's thrilling.

Offstage, of course, the boys are perfectly lovely people. in fact, they're downright boring. They look like four Sear's sweater models. One of them takes a lot of drugs, but that's about it.

The Clowns are supposed to be on tour, but they all live together in a house and never go anywhere so I don't buy it. Also, they perform every show in the same theater. None of this matters, though, as the movie is shot in such poor lighting that you can't see much anyway.

The Clowns have a roadie. Two, actually. Herb is a sweet young guy who is bad with the ladies and seems insecure about his looks even though he's the best looking person in the film. Jeff is a jackhole who treats Herb badly and uses him to borrow money to support his own drug problem. Herb likes to duplicate the makeup worn by The Clowns and talk to girls who think he's in the band. It's creepy in a big way, but everyone thinks he's harmless and just laughs it off.

The film consists entirely of scene after scene in which a young woman takes her clothes off and is stabbed by a person wearing the group's clown makeup. Sometimes the girls are high on cocaine. Sometimes they're drunk. Sometimes they just like getting it on with musicians. Sometimes they're all of these things. The guys have a secret room, called the Blood Room, in which they make girls act out torture fantasies before having sex with them. I don't know how they had time to build a Blood Room in the theater when supposedly they're only playing there a night or two, but there it is.

This obsession with sex isn't a surprise given the film's pedigree. It's director is Don Edmunds. An actor who had bit parts on shows including Gidget, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, and The Munsters, Edmunds made his directorial mark with the Nazi sexploitation film Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (in which concentration camp warden Ilsa conducts experiments to prove that women can withstand more pain than men can) and its follow up Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (in which she oversees the female sex slaves of, well, a sheik). His handful of other films aren't much kinder to women, which suggests he wasn't all that fond of them. But we can't ask him because he died in 2009.

In between sleeping with girls the band members fret about whether they're selling out. Well, some of them do. One just lies around on his waterbed doing drugs. But there's a nice scene where they reminisce about what life used to be like and sing a sweet little song they wrote before they were The Clowns, and it sounds a lot like The Names. They also have a couple of conversations with the detective who comes to investigate all of the dead girls. He thinks The Clowns' music is making some fan go crazy and commit murder.

During all of this Herb is sneaking around having awkward conversations with girls and watching through windows as the band members have sex, which makes you wonder if maybe he knows a thing or two about the murders. Oh, and the band's enthusiastic nice-guy manager, Tim, fires Jeff for being a jackhole, which gives Jeff a good reason to want to frame the group.

Some more girls die so the detective decides to bring in a girl who was recently arrested for prostitution to see if she can infiltrate the band's world and find the killer. She wanders around and makes friends with Herb the roadie, who for some reason tells her his name is Rob. But she lies about her name too, so it's okay. Anyway, he asks her out and she says okay, which is a huge boost to his self esteem. But right now, he says, he has something to do, and off he runs dressed as a clown.

Now it's time for the band to go on. While they play the prostitute snoops around and comes across the body of a dead girl. Then the clown jumps out and slashes her, but she gets away. Since The Clowns are all onstage together, we know none of them is the killer, which we pretty much figured anyway.

So the prostitute runs and the clown chases her. He stops long enough to kill the detective, who is also wandering around. We're really rooting for the prostitute, who has managed to evade the clown by hiding in a room behind some shelves. And for a while you think she might live, especially when she finally emerges from hiding, finds the dead detective, and takes his gun.

But no. The clown appears and kills her. So that kind of sucks. For her.

But there's still Herb. Still dressed as one of The Clowns, he finds the dead girl. Looking for help, he happens upon Tim.

Remember Tim? The nice-guy manager? I forgot to mention that earlier in the movie Herb was in the band's house and found a letter written to Tim from his mother. It seems mama is a religious nut of sorts, and she warns little Timmy to beware of Satan's influence, by which she means loose women.

Sorry I didn't say anything earlier, but then you wouldn't have kept reading, right? Or watching. Because we knew half an hour ago who was doing the killings, mainly because no one in the music industry is as nice as Tim supposedly is.

Sure enough, Tim tells Herb that he hates loose women because they defile themselves and can never be good mothers. "I had to kill them," he insists. "They had no moral values at all. They were whores. ALL of them."

I'm not sure who made Tim the Judge of Everyone, but if you ask me he's overstepping his bounds a bit. Still, he's the one with the knife, so who's going to argue with him? Not Herb, who turns and runs. Tim chases him right onto the stage where The Clowns are performing their number "Bad to the Girls." You'd think they would stop to help their favorite roadie, but no. But I suppose they're in shock. Anyway, Tim stabs Herb a million times.

The end.

I know, I thought more would happen too. And maybe it did and I just missed it. I was a little sleepy what with the rain and the Chihuahuas piled on me and all. But I tried to pay attention, and I did take notes. Mostly they consist of "and then the clown stabbed the girl" and "someone puts on clown makeup." Which honestly is all that does happen. I swear.

Still, there are The Clowns and their lovely songs. And a lot of breasts. Also, some really good lines. For instance, during one of the sex scenes the girl asks The Clowns' drummer how long they have, to which he responds by looking down at his crotch and saying, "Eight-and-a-half. Make that nine." Classic, right?

Or how about this exchange between a naked girl in the theater balcony and the clown standing in front of her:

Naked Girl: "Is there anything I can do for you?"

Clown: "Yes. Die!"

Terror on Tour is loaded with gems like these. "I think you're better than the Beatles and The Kinks," a groupie tells one of the band. Genius. And when The Clowns' lead singer tells the audience, "Go home or we'll kill you," you know you're in the presence of greatness. Sadly, screenwriter Dell Lekus never wrote another script, at least that I know of. But why should he when his only one is so perfect?

Now I know what you're thinking. Why would I want to watch this? Why?

Because it's there. Something I've come to appreciate while writing Spawn of Bozo is that no matter how seemingly awful a film is, someone made it. They thought it up, they wrote it, they made costumes, they filmed it. This is more than most of us ever do. So we owe it to them to at least give their work a chance.

Besides, if I had to suffer through it you should too.

Having said that, you might have some trouble finding Terror on Tour. It was released only on VHS. But you can occasionally find it on ebay, and it's totally worth it. You can also find DVD transfers floating around if you search through the murky underground of forgotten films.

If you're curious about The Names, you might also enjoy visiting the website of drummer Chip Greenman. He has some inside stories about the making of Terror on Tour that you might find interesting. Also, he's the one who utters the charming "Eight and a half" line, so you might e-mail him and ask him about that.

Oh, one more thing. Tim, the woman-killing psychopath manager? He's played by actor Larry Tomashoff. At least that's what he called himself then. Now he calls himself Larry Thomas.

But you might know him better as Seinfeld's Soup Nazi.

KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park

Favorite Line: "Ack!"

Rating (out of 5):

4 Clowns

Terror on Tour

Favorite Line: "Listen to them up there. Sounds like a buncha vultures at a barbecue."

Rating (out of 5):

1 Clown