Remember how Hanna-Barbera made a live-action KISS made-for-TV movie in the '70s?
It was supposed to be 'A Hard Day's Night' meets 'Star Wars.' It wasn't.
Image: The Everett Collection
The doorbell rings on Halloween night in 1978. Trick-or-treaters huddle on the porch. You open the door and find eyes staring through the plastic masks of Darth Vader and the Demon, Luke Skywalker and the Starchild. Mostly likely. Because there were no bigger pop culture phenomenons that year bigger than KISS and Star Wars. Well, maybe disco. Even KISS and Star Wars had disco songs, you know.
October 31 happened to fall on a Tuesday in '78, which meant the real holiday partying went down on Saturday night, October 28. You didn't have to leave the house — or get up from the couch — to celebrate the holiday. The TV lineup was a Halloween shindig in itself. And we're not just talking about Vincent Price sailing aboard The Love Boat in "Ship of Ghouls."
That evening NBC premiered KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, a live-action movie complete with roller coasters, cyborg werewolves, vampires and mad scientists. And the members of KISS, of course. If the goofy plot — which centered around an evil genius creating an army of android clones in an amusement park — felt like a cartoon, specifically an episode of Scooby-Doo, it was with good reason. Hanna-Barbera, the animation studio best known for The Flintstones and Yogi Bear, produced the flick.
Hanna-Barbera pitched the movie to the band as "A Hard Day's Night meets Star Wars." The end result was more like Ed Wood directing The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The band despised it. According to the 1997 book Kiss And Sell: The Making Of A Supergroup, members of the KISS camp were barred from even mentioning the movie in the presence of the band. Over the years, the KISS guys have softened their stance, thankfully, as the movie has grown in cult status. What other spectacle offers so much 1970s cheese, from platform shoes to kung-fu fighting.
The Phantom of the Park had some legitimate talent behind the camera. Director Gordon Hessler honed his chops as a Hitchcock underling, beginning his career in the shadowy suspense stories of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The German native also helmed two of the more memorable horror-themed television episodes of the 1970s, the sewer-dwelling Kolchak creature-feature "The Spanish Moss Murders" and Wonder Woman's "Gault's Brain," the one with the human brain and eyeballs floating in a vat.
The script was another matter. Not to mention the fact that Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss were all novices when it came to acting. (They certainly improved, as Simmons played a perfectly slimy villain in the 1984 Tom Selleck movie Runaway.) When the screenwriters first met with the band to get a sense of their personalities, Frehley said next to nothing. Instead, he repeatedly blurted, "Ack!"
Thus, the original script described Ace as the "Harpo Marx" of the band. Frehley bristled at his lesser, inarticulate role and a few more lines were thrown to his character. Nevertheless, he mostly just went, "Ack!"
Of all the KISS members, Frehley holds the fondest memories of the film. "I had a lot of fun," he said in a 2018 interview with Blabbermouth.net. "When we started shooting at [Six Flags] Magic Mountain, they closed the park at six o'clock, so I had the run of the park. I bought a moped and used to drive around all those asphalt trails between the rides. I crashed a few times, but luckily, I had that costume on with all the padding, and I didn't get hurt."
That might explain his stunt-double — who was clearly of a different ethnicity.
There were more bizarre substitutions. Producers reportedly disliked the voice of Criss, and brought in veteran voice actor Michael Bell to dub in the drummer's lines. Supposedly, the moment in the movie in which you can hear Criss' own voice is during his acoustic performance of his hit ballad "Beth." Bell was the actor who voiced Zan, Gleek and the Riddler in Super Friends cartoons, not to mention Handy Smurf and G.I. Joe leader Duke. Then again, Criss denies any of this took place, so… yeah, the movie was just as strange behind the scenes.
KISS was at its peak in popularity. The group had just released their ambitious quartet of solo albums the prior month, and the hottest singles from those LPs, like Frehley's "New York Groove," turned up in The Phantom. AVCO Embassy Pictures released the film theatrically overseas, where it was known as Attack of the Phantoms or Kiss Phantoms.
But, really, it marked the beginning of the end of the band. Criss would leave the group not long afterward, and Frehley would follow. In the early 1980s, KISS would unmask, which in hindsight seems like a far sillier career move than a shlock rock 'n' roll horror movie.
In 2003, a quarter century after their Halloween breakthrough, KISS would reteam with Hanna-Barbera, appearing in "A Scooby Doo Halloween." This time, however, they were animated.