Saturday, October 17, 2015
THE HELL OF OTHERS’ AMUSEMENT: FAINT PRAISE FOR “KISS IN ATTACK OF THE PHANTOMS”
Wow, thanks, I thought----and due to some mad insomnia, I think I did wind up awake through most of the questionable spectacle. Later the next day, she informed me that she had been half-dreaming that the DVD was supposed to be a “special cut” of the film and somewhere in her head it was supposed to be radically different from the original---so I guess it was supposed to be a glam rock “Battleship Potemkin” or something.
This terrible, terrible movie is late night video comfort food in our home, sandwiched somewhere between Something Weird trailer comps, box sets of “Kids in the Hall” and “Mr. Show” and Frankie & Annette Beach epics. This is the stuff we use to lull ourselves off to sleep and it usually runs all night long.
“Attack of the Phantoms” is the theatrical release of the 1978 made-for-TV movie, “Kiss meets the Phantom of the Park”---Gordon Hessler, who gave us several Vincent Price films as well as “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (Herbert Lom version), “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” and “The Girl on the Swing”, grinned and bore directorial duties.
“Kiss meets the Phantom” is a bad movie. It’s important to note this. As fringe film geeks, we often find ourselves in the existential and thankless position of defending films others write off as “bad movies”,,,frequently there’s a “but” involved, because people weaned on the mainstream need a “But” preface to be pulled into our perspective…”sure, It has no budget to speak of….but they did a lot with what little they were given.” “Sure, it seems hackneyed, but you need to remember that they had two weeks to film the thing and then the set was used for this OTHER movie.” “The acting sucks, but the writing is great.” “The story might be derivative, but look at the cinematography!” “It may be awkward and haphazard, but you have to look at these historical perspectives.” “But….but….LOOK AT THAT BADASS LIGHTING!!!!” If you’re waiting for the “But” with “KMTP”, don’t hold your breath. It’s a bad movie.
However…and while there might not be a big cult film “But”, here, there are a few special, pleading “Howevers”---there are a couple of film conventions going on that are worth noting: First and foremost, of course, there are the obvious tips of the hat to “The Phantom of the Opera”----in this case the titular “Phantom” is the Wiz behind all the rides and attractions, who, feeling spurned under economic pressures, goes on a sabotagin’ rampage with his robot creations. Secondarily (and in my eyes, most interesting), there is a common thread at work, here, with a lot of the Mexican Wrestling pictures from back in the day, in which Santo, Blue Demon and other masked wrestling luminaries battled monsters and alien invaders. Not that I think Hessler, Hanna-Barbera or (ESPECIALLY) Kiss and Aucoin, Inc. had any inkling of such delirious schlock---and KMTP is far too canned for such exotic Dada---but the thread is too strong to ignore. Lives hang in the balance and the future of the world is in jeopardy and so the President calls on…a Wrestler?! A madman threatens the lives of thousands and so who else could save the day but the hardest-rocking heroes of Puppetland? The narrative thread, even if unconscious, is staggering.
But these tenuous threads notwithstanding, I’m not gonna blow sunshine up your ass; this is one titanic turkey of a film. Take no other assessments.
Inna nutshell, the Amusement Park the flick takes place in (And yes---the entirety of the film’s action takes place IN A GODDAMN AMUSEMENT PARK) is facing tough financial times---in hopes of boosting attendance, park owner Calvin Richards (70s stalwart Carmine Caridi) books the 70s’ favorite cartoon rock band, Kiss, to do a three-night stint. This invokes the ire of his old compadre, Abner Devereaux (world-class character actor Anthony Zerbe, whose exemplary scenery-chewing is the only reason I can scare up to watch this turd---Zerbe scores an A-list ham-job in material that is demoralizing at best. It’s obvious that he knows the caliber of the piece he’s been saddled with and he plays it like a harp from Hell ). See, Devereaux is the brains behind all the rides and gadgetry in the park---he’s especially defensive of the motheaten anthropomorphic figures that delight the kiddies by lurching around in a 3-foot radius over and over all the live-long day. It seems a particular affront to him that all his research and development bucks are being siphoned off to promote this decadent and tacky rock band, just when he’s on the verge of a major breakthrough---alas for Abner, the bottom line is The Bottom Line.
Behind the scenes, though, foul play is afoot---park patrons and employees are mysteriously going MIA. Devereaux keeps ranting that he is on the verge of a major breakthrough, but his raging, aggro narcissism finally forces Calvin to pull the plug and fire his old friend. Devereaux descends into his underground lab, vowing to destroy the park.
Roughly an hour into the travesty, Kiss (Stanley, Simmons, Frehley & Criss) enter the film, lip-sync songs like “Shout it Out Loud”, “Rock and Roll All Nite”, “I Stole your Love” and “Beth” amid a mishmash of concert footage---they wooden soldier through gawdawful dialogue and an idiot plot and fun and laffs ensue.
Devereaux’s “breakthrough” is that his silly, anthropomorphic robots have become very lifelike and very dangerous---oh---yeah---and they’re essentially cybernetically enhanced slaves—all those folks disappearing? YEAH---Devereaux has taken them and turned them into an army of mindless “Small World” androids.
Enter Sam and Melissa (Terry Lester and Deborah Ryan), a bland, beige-dressed couple who are the Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle to Kiss’s Marx Brothers here. Sam is a new Devereaux lackey who blunders into an elevator and disappears only to be reconfigured as Abner’s favorite electro-zombie. My guess is that he caught Devereaux dressed as Holly Hobby, whacking off over his own genius, and paid the ultimate price---sometimes you see too much. Melissa is a walking plot device---she spends the rest of the film palling around with Kiss, wringing her hands over Sam’s whereabouts and screaming breathlessly when the situation calls for it.
Devereaux has sabotaged the whole party by creating a bad robot Kiss---most notably a bad robot Gene Simmons, who runs amok (sometimes accompanied by android redcoats) breaking stuff and terrorizing rentacops (most notably dependable character actor Brion James, squandered here). Kiss, in addition to being the world’s greatest cartoon rock band, are beings gifted with superhuman powers. They stalk Devereaux around the park, battling android ninjas, a fat Frankenstein robot, cybernetic albino space monkeys and finally, onstage in front of God’n’everybody, their evil robot doubles---a scenario later copped for “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” in the early 90s…not everybody caught the reference in that movie----but I did.
The oddball denouement has Sam being freed of his robot control while Devereaux is revealed, whitehaired and comatose (or dead)---segue to the ending shot---an earlier image of Devereaux wandering around the roller coaster with a facial expression that seems to blend introspection, Luciferian malice and a bad case of constipation---you check it out if you think I’m joking---I’ve made this face numerous times for Heather and SHE can’t argue---while the melancholy “Mr. Make Believe” from Simmons’ 1978 solo album plays….this might be to say the angry spirit of Abner Devereaux will always lurk in the park---or it might just be ham fisted editing on someone’s part---you can bandy theories about all you want, bucco---my money’s on the latter supposition, all the way.
“KMTP” went from TV to a brief run around the driveins, then it unceremoniously disappeared into home video obscurity---and yet it refuses to die. A big part of the blame, of course, is the shameless institution of Kiss, Inc., who are all too glad to milk an abortion for a meal ticket---it’s also perpetuated by the Kiss Kult in general—and they’re a very scary, non-discriminating bunch---like rock’n’roll trekkies you dare not turn your back on.
I can’t say a lot, though, since I own the horrific thing. In some inexplicable, sodden way, “KMTP” takes hold, like a deadly fungus, and it has a perverse kind of resonance.
My cousin recently threw me a “what if” scenario---what if this film had really taken off---not from a Kiss perspective, but from a “Phantom of the Park” perspective? What if a whole franchise of these monstrosities had been produced? “The Captain and Tenille meet the Phantom of the Park”…”The Dukes of Hazzard meet the Phantom of the Park”…”Wonder Woman meets the Phantom of the Park”….”The Bee Gees meet the Phantom of the Park”. Personally, I would have liked to have seen how Slade woulda handled the situation.
Twisted, the way this crap worms its way into the brain, eh? Hang tight---I have an even more maleficent brainstorm---“Kiss meets the Phantom of the Park: The Rock Opera”. The real action surrounds Abner Devereaux and his inner conflict---Kiss themselves are just kind of a deus ex machina that come in at the end and sort everything out---you could even fold in the choruses to “Shout it out Loud” and “Rock and Roll All Nite” as kind of an ironic, apocryphal Greek Chorus device. I’ve given this a great deal of thought and I think it REALLY COULD WORK. There’s the part of the movie where Calvin takes Abner for a ride on the park monorail to explain the dollars-and-cents reality of his position---all the other happy passengers are unaware that a lifelong friendship is quietly going down the tubes in the back car. Now put this all to a “Tommy”-esque, bloated, baroque rock score and entitle it, “The two Saddest Guys on the Monorail”---TELL ME THAT’S NOT A GRADE-A IDEA. TELL ME THAT WOULD NEVER WORK. KNOCK THIS BATTERY OFF MY SHOULDER, I DARE YA. Think about the stampede of rockers who would kill to play Abner Devereaux in a rock opera! What’s Marilyn Manson doing these days? You know he’d eat this up….this is what the younguns refer to as “Post-Modernism”.
“We found him by the side of the road, Chief, just rambling incoherently about Lil’ Abner and Marilyn Manson and sad guys on monorails---then he started screaming about being a misunderstood genius and we just had to haul him in for the general peace…you know, there’s a very nasty strain of Phantom floating around, lately, and this poor bastard’s obviously tripping balls…not a lot we can do for him except let him sleep it off…you feel that jitter, buster? Those are the strychnine jitters…you know, that Phantom stuff…you do know they cut it with rat poison, right? Or DID you know? Just relax for a while, pal---we’ll let you post bail when you’re calm enough to spell ‘Mississippi’…”
After awhile I have to back off and drag my peepers from the abyss and acknowledge that that way lies madness. But what is it that perpetually drags me to that infernal bottomless well? Why does goddamn Abner Devereaux ride herd over my shattered psyche, and how can I heal myself, or at least score a sizeable profit off the trauma?
Who is this forsaken freak, Abner Devereaux, and how did he come into the possession of every joker in the maniac’s tarot? What was his background? What are his hopes, his dreams, his favorite TV shows? Is he a “Lou Grant” guy, or a “Love Boat” guy? Does he read NEWSWEEK? Where does he come from, and what does he want from me? What are his turn-ons and turn-offs? And what’s with Fat Frankenstein, anyway?
I have this idea that he doesn’t correspond to normal, according-to-Hoyle sexuality. Certainly, he may have vague designs on Beige Oatmeal Girl, but I think it’s less a case of wanting to have his way with her and more a case of needing that certain special someone who will squeal with delight at all your impressive inventions…yes, kids, some deeply misshapen part of me understands the mad scientist’s wounded ego.
Perhaps it’s that, in each and every one of us, the universal truth we’d all like to sweep under the rug is that we are ALL Abner Devereaux---that this tragic, misunderstood, mad genius lurks in us all, jilted by the bottom line and unable to make his breakthrough and waiting in rapt anger to bring the hammer down on all who’ve thwarted his dreams.
That’s some nice damn fortune cookie rationale, but in the end even my feverish, gibbering mind can’t support it…the truth is that Devereaux doesn’t come righteously by his actions because the kindling that fires his dreams is PEOPLE. Poor ole Sam, milquetoast though he might be, doesn’t deserve a life of mindless slavery---and the juvenile delinquents who vandalize the park, only to become android minutemen in some historical “redemption” dreamt up in Abner’s twisted mind? They might have had their indiscretions, but the problem with the doctrine of Hell---even Devereaux’s tinpot purgatory, is that after aeons of suffering and/or robot servitude, even the Hitlers, Stalins and Mansons of the world have to come up square with the house at one point or another.
A world where Abner Devereaux emerges victorious is a world that’s not about to do anyone a damned bit of good---let’s just be honest, I wouldn’t be happy in that scenario, and neither would you. Do you want to spend the rest of your life applauding some clown in a lab coat every time he comes up with the hot new robot? He might land those crucial research and development dollars, but whether it’s a clunky mechanical gorilla who lurches back and forth on a chain, a historical figure cobbled from a young ne’er-do-well, evil robot Gene Simmons or a lifelike android Barbershop Quartet harmonizing over their missing body parts, it’s a pretty bleak future. Choose your own adventure, chief—do you want to listen to the spare parts quartet warble about how “it must be the look in her eyes” while Uncle Ab stands off to the side nursing a raging stiffy, or do you want to go spend three nights watching the greatest cartoon band in the world blow shit up real good?
Me? I’ll take three nights with the cartoon rockers any day. Sorry…it was an easy choice.
One of the saddest memories of my youth is being at the amusement park in Hampton, New Hampshire, watching my younger brother, who may have been 11 or 12 at the time, ride the bumper cars. He was constantly getting wedged up in a knot of cars---I witnessed a sad look of despair and consternation on his face as he haplessly worked the wheel and some rangy carny with a microphone harangued him. “Just back out of the corner, willya, Ace?!” My brother didn’t want to be on that goddamned ride…I don’t know whose bent, misbegotten idea of fun that was.
In a world designed to amuse the likes of Abner Devereaux, we’re all stuck in that lousy bumper car gridlock, fighting the wheel for no good reason and to no good end, while some fleabitten carny of fate mocks our efforts, and it’s nice to play ”let’s pretend”, but who really wants to sign on for that ride?
Gawd, I need some sleep.
Originally published in ANTIQUE CHILDREN. Copyright 2011 C.F. Roberts, 2015 Molotov Editions