Revisiting KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, the Greatest (And Worst) Glam Rock Adventure Movie of All Time

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Sept. 26 2013 6:55 PM

Metallica: Through the Never

The band’s new concert/adventure film really could have used more zombie policemen and perforated lasers.

Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park: Now this is an adventure.

Courtesy Hanna-Barbera Productions/NBC

With their new IMAX 3-D spectacular Metallica: Through the Never, the multiplatinum-selling speed-metal quartet from San Francisco have devised an ambitious way to showcase their music for a new generation of fans. Rather than capture a pre-existing concert, they put together a stage show explicitly for this movie, filling an arena with more props and pyrotechnics than Nigel Tufnel could dream of and rigging up 24 cameras to give moviegoers an uncanny sense of being there for the jackhammering of “Master of Puppets” and the baroque balladeering of “Nothing Else Matters.”

But there’s also something else afoot here, something to earn the film’s grandly oblique title: a wordless, surrealistic adventure narrative that was conceived by the band along with director Nimród Antal. These fictional sequences are threaded through the song cycle but take place outside of the arena, with actor Dane DeHaan playing a roadie sent on a mysterious quest through an apocalyptic cityscape. The idea is to visualize what the mood and lyrics conjure, to take the audience on a cinematic journey through the band’s greatest hits, and to solidify and expand the Metallica brand.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a certifiable rock ‘n’ roll funhouse adventure film. Music videos rendered them redundant in the 1980s, though bubblegum derivations like Michael Jackson: Moonwalker and Spice World occasionally popped up in the intervening decades. But in the prime of the mid-1970s, the era of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Saturday morning animated musical whodunits like Scooby-Doo, curios such as Alice Cooper: The Nightmare, and the venerable KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park turned rock gods into genre heroes. Fueled by synergistic pretentions and trans-media ambitions, yet saddled by inadequate production values and half-assed-at-best storytelling, these films were credibility killers that also had a kind of hubristic integrity—bridges too far that crash satisfyingly into the bay. Though it’s technically superior to any of its forebears, and serves as a sonically superlative (if also monotonous) concert film, Metallica’s batty fantastical elements have effectively awoken this gloriously inglorious genre from a prolonged hibernation.   

Yet except for an opening sequence in which the hoodie-wearing DeHaan enters the arena and spies each member of the band before the show, the concert and adventure elements are kept separate. And except for a momentary fake stage disaster, in which lead singer James Hetfield utters the Keanu-worthy line “Whoa … what’s going on?” the band members are never obliged to act in the film. Judging from Lars Ulrich’s brief cameo in Get Him to the Greek, this would seem to be for the better. But what, pray tell, is the point of making a Metallica musical adventure film, one in which a gas-masked horseman of the apocalypse lynches street protesters from streetlamps, if you’re not going to dress up bassist Kirk Hammett as a zombie policeman, or have Hetfield shoot perforated laser beams out of his eyes?

Oh, right: because KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was a work of such cautionary folly that only Michael Jackson was crazy enough to attempt anything like it. This made-for-TV camp landmark, in which the aforementioned perforated laser beam was employed, was the simultaneous apex and nadir of glam rock outfit KISS’s career. It was the second-highest-rated televised event of 1978 (behind only Roots) while also inexorably contributing to the fracturing of the band/brand. After the purportedly tedious shoot at California’s Magic Mountain amusement park, each member hustled together poorly received solo albums, drummer Peter Criss spiraled deeper into substance abuse and would soon be replaced, guitarist Ace Frehley’s disaffection would lead to his own exile, and the band’s spiraling discomfort with their own identity would lead to such desperate measures as a synth-heavy prog rock concept album, and the shunning of their trademark makeup masks.

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.

Eric Hynes is a New York-based journalist and film critic.