Yet Phantom had a transparency of purpose that Metallica: Through the Never labors to obscure, not to mention a levity that Lars and co. are too busy bench-pressing their own mythology to entertain. I won’t make any claims for Phantom’s quality—it has “cheap, uninspired quickie” written all over every haphazardly framed shot—but 35 years later it remains as disarmingly loopy as it was on broadcast date Oct. 28, 1978, the Saturday before Halloween.
The movie starts with a title sequence in which the four members of KISS—Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss, and Ace Frehley—materialize in an amusement park as towering, platform heel-wearing holograms to sing “Rock and Roll All Nite,” only to disappear from the telecast for 30 whole minutes (not counting commercials). In the interim, we meet Abner Devereaux (Anthony Zerbe), a vaguely European mad scientist type who toils beneath the park, and whose experiments in animatronics have secretly branched into human abduction and mind control. When he sees park financing redirected into KISS’s hotly anticipated engagement, Devereaux plots a hostile, vaguely explicated takeover involving an army of albino wolfmen in silver onesies and KISS’s evil android doppelgängers.
The KISS boys do eventually perform several of their hits in something that resembles a legitimate show, but otherwise toe the line between ineptitude and catatonia as they vanquish, via awkward drop kicks and unseen trampoline-propelled acrobatics, a crew of color-coordinated kung fu fighters, a dream team posse of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy, and yes, their own doppelgängers. If this sounds like a live-action Scooby-Doo cartoon, that’s because it is. KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was produced by none other than Hanna-Barbera, the brain trust behind Scooby, Shaggy, Yogi, and Space Ghost. The target audience was clearly young schoolkids—those most likely to be swayed by obscure world-domination plots, not to mention rock stars capable of breathing fire. These were not viewers who knew what “Love Gun” was really about, or understood the band’s debt to bondage culture or the New York Dolls; they only saw roller coasters, robots, and good guys in crazy costumes. (Though I’ve no idea how anyone, at any age, could see Stanley’s leotard-framed carpet of chest hair as anything but pornographic.)
Although it’s a far cry from ’70s kiddie camp, Metallica: Through the Never is also pitched toward a younger demographic: teens and young adults who might not reach for Ride the Lightning the way that teens of previous generations did. Metallica is much deeper into its career than KISS was in 1978, and continues to enjoy a more respected career path, but the goals of their two films are basically the same. Where Phantom put a more traditional storytelling frame around its image-shilling (good guys triumphing over bad), Metallica eschews story for pure, unmoored imagery. Since DeHaan’s character, Trip, has no backstory, no lines of dialogue, and a mission that’s even hazier than Devereaux’s, we’ve no choice but to accept these sequences on purely experiential terms.
Trip survives a movie cliché car crash; he hallucinates about wars in which he couldn’t have fought; he runs into riot policemen set to clash with street protesters (over what we don’t know); then he’s chased by a marauding medieval horseman, then by citizens who resemble zombies, then he soaks himself in gasoline and burns himself alive and yet survives. God knows why any of this happens, except to communicate a sense of general darkness and perhaps coolness. It’s one giant heavy metal trope dump, countercultural co-optation for a dingier, video-game-violence-inured generation.
Yet what’s missing from this rock ‘n’ roll funhouse adventure revival is, well, adventure. For all of its seeming randomness, its dreamlike, free-associative, noncausational unfurling, not a single image in the entirety of Metallica: Through the Never is unexpected. The point is that you’ve seen these things before—a body submerged in water, a cityscape crumbling from a rooftop, a bag with unseen contents—and are encountering them here like a remembered melody, a barrage of “visual content” to be paired with the band’s propulsive audio. It’s all very handsomely arranged, but even with the concert footage, nothing ever feels live.
Compare it to any moment in the technically and formally appalling KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, a collectively agreed-upon cinematic atrocity that, with 23 fewer cameras in play than Metallica, still manages to surprise and confound, from Frehley’s bizarrely persistent reliance on the nonsensical interjection “Ack,” to Simmons’s ginger-stepping in his platforms, ever in discord with his menacing scowl. At the end, it is said of the defeated villain that “He created KISS to destroy KISS and he lost.” I still have no idea what that means. And so the adventure continues. It may not be the legacy anyone would have chosen, but true rock mythology isn’t constructed, it rambles on.