Known as Attack of the Phantoms in Europe and Kiss Phantoms in Italy, this movie has been an embarrassment to Kiss the band and their fans, the Kiss Army, for years. As a six-year-old in 1978, I was certainly aware of the band, as many of my friends had the toys and their older brothers and sisters had the records. But they always seemed strange to me — I was always wondering why they weren’t heavier. It wasn’t until I moved past their 1980’s work and started to enjoy the first few albums that I learned just how much fun Kiss could be.
That’s probably why this movie doesn’t upset me at all. In fact, I kind of love it.
In 1977, Kiss had an income of more than ten million dollars. Their manager Bill Aucoin believed that the traditional cycle of album releases and touring had taken Kiss as far as they could go. So what was the next level? Kiss would become superheroes. Seeing that band boss and bassist Gene Simmons was a huge comic fan, this move made perfect sense.
Round one was a Marvel comic, with the band mixing their blood into the ink for the cover. Round two was this, a Hanna-Barbera produced movie that was a rush job, with all four band members given a crash course in how to act that didn’t really take for anyone but Simmons, who would go on to menace Tom Selleck in Runaway and John Stamos in Never Too Young to Die.
Screenwriters Jan Michael Sherman and Don Buday spent time with each Kiss member so that they could properly learn their characters. “Space Ace” Ace Frehely was known to be pretty strange, frequently saying “Ack!” The writers decided that he would be like Harpo Marx and that would be the only word he would say. Ace responded by demanding more lines or he would quit the film.
Both Frehley and “Catman” Peter Criss hated the long downtime that comes with movie making. They were both dealing with substance abuse issues at the time, too. Nearly none of Criss’ dialogue is his voice. It’s Michael Bell other than when he sings “Beth.” In fact, Frehley got in a fight with director Gordon Hessler (Scream, Pretty Peggy) and left, so for one scene you can clearly see his stunt double taking his place. How can you tell? Well, Ace isn’t black but his double is.
Much of Kiss’ acting in this film is them performing in the parking lot of Magic Mountain in front of 8,000 fans. Those fans were drawn by free tickets from local station KTNQ and DJ “The Real” Don Steele, who shows up here, as well as in plenty of Roger Corman alma mater films like Gremlins, Death Race 2000, Rock ‘n Roll High School and Eating Raoul. In 1970, he was so famous that a “Super Summer Spectacular” spot Don Steele contest led to two teenagers trying to track down the DJ accidentally ramming a car into a highway divider, killing a man. The case that came out of it made it the whole way to the Supreme Court of California and Weirum v. RKO General, Inc., 15 Cal.3d 40 is still studied in American law schools in regards to the subject of foreseeability in torts law.
Within Six Flags Magic Mountain, Abner Devereaux (Anthony Zerbe, The Omega Man) is upset that his animatronics are playing second banana to an appearance by Kiss. That may be because his creations have been eating up park revenue. Devereaux is a real piece of work, enslaving Sam Farrell and other employees and a gang of punks (one of them, Dirty Dee, is played by Lisa Jane Persky, who was an early CBGB audience member and girlfriend of Blondie bass player Gary Valentine, who write “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” for her. She has gone on to appear on Quantum Leap and in multiple projects with Divine. Another punk, Chopper, has a vest with a Satan’s Mothers patch, the exact same logo that would be used again the next year for Walter Hill’s The Warriors).
As Sam’s girlfriend Melissa searches for him as the mad scientist of the park is fired and Kiss plays their concert. After the show, we realize that Kiss are nearly ascetic magicians given to magical pronouncements and superpowers, particularly “Demon” Gene Simmons whose voice rumbles whenever he speaks and “Starchild” Paul Stanley who can read minds.
Devereaux eventually steals the mystical talismans that give Kiss their powers and replaces them with evil robotic duplicates. Of course, Kiss gets their powers back and wins over the crowd and saves the park.
Before the movie aired on TV, a private screening was arranged for Kiss. While their management and hangers-on loved it, the band was incensed and refused to allow anyone to speak of the movie in their presence.
This is quite literally a Scooby-Doo movie, only topped by the 2015 cartoon Scooby-Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery, where Kiss wrote a song all about Fred, “Don’t Touch My Ascot.”
Ironically, soon after this film, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley would replace the increasingly unreliable and out of control Ace and Peter with an endless series of duplicates who had no ownership or voice in the band’s future. So you can kind of watch this film as a precursor to the very behavior that band would embody in the future. Perhaps the robotic Gene is now the real Gene? The mind boggles.
If I ever met Simmons — my brother has, he gave a keynote speech at a Major League Baseball annual retreat, something I find inordinately hilarious — I hope he looks at me and roars like a lion before intoning, “No gratitude need be voiced. Your mind speaks to us!”