Glam rockers KISS agree to play some concerts to help a struggling amusement park. As an economy measure, the designer of the rides is fired, but he plots revenge in his underground laboratory and plans to use the rockers to carry out his evil plan…
By the late 1970s rock band KISS were superstars, their radio-friendly anthems propelling them to the top of the Billboard charts after first gaining notoriety for their outrageous makeup, costumes and stage show. They were one of the first groups to realise the importance of merchandising, cashing in with a Marvel Comic Book that featured the band as superheroes: Demon (Gene Simmons), Starchild (Paul Stanley), Space Ace (Ace Frehley) and Cat Man (Peter Criss). The next step seemed obvious to band manager Bill Aucoin: a movie.
Debuting on the NBC network in October 1978, the film in question was apparently conceived as a cross between ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Star Wars.’ The band appear in their superhero guises only, battling mad scientist Anthony Zerbe, who steals the talismans which give our heroes their superpowers. Eventually, he goes even further by kidnapping the band, making them prisoners in his lab and cloning them! It’s all resolved when good KISS and evil KISS fight on stage in front of their adoring fans during a concert. Sounds like goofy fun, right? Er…no.
So what went wrong? Well, if you’re going to base your story around 4 heroes with superpowers then you’d better have the budget to back that up. Pretty much all we get on that front is Stanley shooting a badly animated laser beam out of one eye and Simmons throwing some stuntmen around on very visible wires. By all accounts, Frehley’s real superpower was buggering off for the day when he got bored (which was often) and letting his stunt double shoot most of his scenes. Filming was not a happy experience for anyone, inner tensions so rife amongst the bandmates that the film almost caused the group to split. For years afterwards, anyone working for them was not allowed to even mention the film’s existence.
In terms of positives, all we really have is the presence of Zerbe as the villain. He was a familiar face from guest appearances on countless TV shows, and won an Emmy for his regular supporting role on detective drama ‘Harry O’. He also appeared prominently in many hit films, such as ‘The Omega Man’ (1971), ‘Papillon’ (1973), ‘Licence to Kill’ (1989), ‘Star Trek: Insurrection’ (1998) and ‘American Hustle’ (2013).
The limp, poorly developed script doesn’t give him much to work with here, but he makes the best of it anyway, delivering a serious, committed performance when it must have been tempting just to phone it in. The band are all pretty wooden, of course, but it’s hardly surprising when they were apparently being handed rewritten pages moments before shooting. Not a recommended practice when working with inexperienced actors.
Director Gordon Hessler had delivered some minor Vincent Price shockers in the late 1960s and ‘The Golden Voyage of Sinbad’ (1973) so was a man with at least some experience and pedigree, but he couldn’t get this train wreck back on the rails. The band’s internal conflicts and ‘difficult’ personalities did not help, of course, but the real culprits were the lack of a clear concept and endless rewrites during production. More money might have helped paper over the cracks a little, but it’s hard to believe that anything could have saved a film that looks so rushed and underdeveloped.
Critical opinion was harsh after the initial broadcast, but the film was still sold to some overseas territories in a different cut where it received a general release to cinemas under the titles ‘Attack of the Phantoms’ and ‘Kiss Phantoms’. It has gained a certain cult status in recent years, although mainly among fans of the band.