Rock n’ Roll High School vs. Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park

The 1970s New York music scene produced more than disco movies, they also brought us rock and roll comic book heroes.

The first concert I ever saw was KISS during their Destroyer tour. My parents had seen some clips of them on the TV and were scared to death. The makeup, the costumes, the pyrotechnics, all the fire-breathing and blood-spitting had them convinced that KISS was the most wicked, demonic band on Earth (second only to Alice Cooper), and that if I went to the show I’d undoubtedly become addicted to heroin, possessed by the devil, or at the very least be kidnapped. I didn’t bring up the rumor that KISS was actually an acronym for Knights in Satan’s Service, nor that the possibility of demonic corruption was exactly why I wanted to see the show.

Well, I went and wasn’t sold into slavery. Afterward I couldn’t recall any of the songs they’d done, but it was a hell of a show, that’s for sure.

A few months later I heard the Ramones for the first time, and that pretty much changed everything. For some reason they scared my parents even more.

KISS and The Ramones had a lot in common. They both came out of New York in the mid-’70s. The members of both bands adopted cartoonish stage personas. They both became legends in their own time. They both scared the shit out of (or at least confused) grown-ups. And a mere nine months apart in the late ‘70s they starred in their own movies. Both films, interestingly enough, featured a cameo by famed LA disc jockey Don Steele, but that’s about where the similarities end.

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Now, the idea here is not to say which band is better, or even which film is better (much). What’s interesting about watching the two movies together is noting what they seem to be saying about KISS, about The Ramones, and about the very nature of rock ’n’ roll.

A few days before Halloween 1978, NBC aired KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park (aka Attack of the Phantoms back when it was supposed to springboard a series of KISS films inspired by Marvel’s KISS comic). It was produced by Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, Huckleberry Hound) and directed by Gordon Hessler, who had a good run back in the ‘60s with the likes of The Oblong Box and Scream, Baby, Scream.

KISS starred as their comic book alter-egos, or rather alter-alter-egos, meaning they each had some kind of superpower and were known by superhero names: Gene Simmons was Demon, Peter Criss was Cat Man, Ace Frehley was Space Ace, and Paul Stanley was Star Child. At least that’s what the credits say. In the film itself Paul keeps calling Ace Star Child, and nobody seems to call Paul anything. But let’s not worry about that. As the picture opens they arrive at an aging and sad amusement park where they’ve been booked to play a three-night stand (see…they’re still the band, but they’re superheroes, too).

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Coinciding with their arrival, Abner Devereaux (the always great Anthony Zerbe), the animatronics genius who built most of the park’s attractions, is fired for being an old fuddy duddy who’s out of touch. He’s not pleased with this, and being one of those mad geniuses he decides to use the youth of today to wreak his vengeance on the park and all those who have done him wrong, and that includes said youth. Working in a secret underground lab deep beneath one of the rides, Devereaux has devised a means to create perfectly lifelike androids who will follow his every order. He can apparently whip these things up in a matter of minutes, too. Zerbe, as ever, takes the role seriously and in spite of its inherent silliness underplays it beautifully.

Without getting into all the turgid mechanics of the plot, let’s just say KISS Meets the Phantom is a live action comic book, filmed like an episode of Wonder Woman or Ultraman. For a comic book, though, it’s awfully slow, a bit light on action and almost completely humorless. The members of KISS seem to spend much of the film sitting around on picnic tables waiting for something to happen and trading superhero quips (“There’s Sam. Wonder what his trip is?” “His trip’s a trap.” “Then let’s trip it.”) They seem decidedly uncomfortable with the whole enterprise, possibly, as it’s been reported, because they never saw a full script and were being fed their lines moments before the cameras rolled. The general impression we’re given is that despite all the trappings they’re really nice, law-abiding fellows who mean no harm and want to make the world a better place.

Still, the park’s owners remain terrified of them, in part on account of the “bad element” and “young thugs” who come to see them (“They call themselves the KISS Army!”), and in part because the band brings in $200,000 a night so the owners don’t want to upset them in any way.

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The big climax comes when Devereaux steals KISS’ magic talisman and locks the band up in a cage before sending his newly-created evil robotic KISS out to put on a show. Instead of the traditional “Rock and Roll All Night” opener, the evil robotic KISS opens the show with a new song written by Devereaux. “Rip and Destroy” goes like this:

    It’s time for everyone to listen good

    We’ve taken all we can stand

    You’ve got the power to rip down these walls

    it’s in the palm of your hand

    Rip rip

    Rip and destroy

In short, Devereaux has written a punk song, but a slow and ponderous one. By the time the evil robotic KISS finishes the first chorus, the audience is screaming at them to get off the stage. By the time they’ve repeated the song’s only verse three times, a few hooligans in the audience (members of that no-good KISS Army, no doubt!) start tearing the park up. And to be honest, if they kept repeating that same plodding verse, I’d be tempted to start tearing the place up, too.

Well then the real KISS escapes, flies to the stage (!), beats up the evil robotic KISS and lets the crowd know that a message of rock ’n’ roll rebellion, no matter how drab, is a very very bad thing. Then they play their traditional song list and everyone quiets down.

The movie has a strangely downbeat ending, with Devereaux sadly walking away with his suitcase, undoubtedly contemplating a new job with Disney, or Chuck E. Cheese, or maybe just a move to Stepford. “”He created KISS to destroy KISS,” the park owner says. “But he failed.”

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The same could almost be said about the film itself. Yes, it was clearly aimed at a pre-teen crowd, KISS’ primary audience at that point, so of course it had to offer up a gentle “listen to your parents and drink your milk” message, but still the film embodies the idea of opting for flash and style over any kind of substance.

Members of the band began distancing themselves from the film almost immediately, yet in interviews from around the same time they explained they were trying to put some glamour into rock ’n’ roll, that what they were doing was “better than four schlubs who need a shave wandering out on stage.”

Who knows if they were talking about The Ramones specifically, but it sure feels like it sometimes. Meanwhile, in August of ‘79, Roger Corman’s New World Pictures released Rock ’n’ Roll High School, mostly directed by Allan Arkush (with occasional help from Joe Dante).

If KISS Meets the Phantom was a live action superhero comic, Rock ’n’ Roll High School is a live action cartoon. It’s loud and fast and brash and funny and stupid, filled with bad sight gags, slapstick, recurring jokes, high school film clichés pushed to absurd extremes, low-budget versions of MGM musical production numbers, and exploding mice. It’s also got a great soundtrack and an impressive cast that includes not only The Ramones, but P.J. Soles (Halloween, Stripes), Clint Howard (Gentle Ben, Evilspeak, and all of his brother’s films), Vince Van Patten, Corman vets Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, and Mary Woronov, and cameos from the likes of Grady Sutton (The Bank Dick) and Darby Crash (the soon-to-be-dead lead singer of The Germs). And for the film geek crowd, it’s a film packed with endless movie references to everything from Lassie and Harold Lloyd to Blackboard Jungle, The Girl Can’t Help It, and Preston Sturges.

When the evil Miss Togar (Woronov) is named the new principal of Vince Lombardi High and wages an immediate war on rock ’n’ roll, she finds herself butting heads with “Riff Randal, Rock ’n’ Roller,” (Soles), the world’s biggest Ramones fan. Meanwhile the handsome but dull as mud captain of the football team (Van Patten) can’t get a date. He’s in love with Riff, Riff’s bookish best friend is in love with him, The Ramones are coming to town, the school fixer, Eaglebauer (Howard) is trying to get everyone hooked up, and those hall monitors are completely out of control.

The dumb jokes fly, the rock ’n’ roll blasts, Togar doesn’t become any more understanding, and things escalate until finally (with the Ramones’ help), the students take over the school, carve up their permanent records with a chainsaw, and blow the place all to hell. I have never heard an audience cheer the way they did the first time I saw this. Christ, if you see this as an adolescent and you don’t cheer when that school explodes, there’s something just plain wrong with you (though I imagine today cheering at that scene might well get you arrested).

It’s a goofy teenage fantasy about rebellion and sex and hating authority and violence and rock ’n’ roll and exploding mice. And in the end, police chief Dick Miller has the film’s best line: “Those Ramones are ugly…ugly people.”

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So let’s summarize, shall we?

KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was a Hanna-Barbera made-for-TV film aimed at pre-teens that aired in prime time with commercial interruptions to sell useless crap.

Rock ’n’ Roll High School was a Corman production that screened at midnight showings to crowds of rowdy stoned and drunken teens.

The supposedly nice guy members of KISS remain aloof throughout the film and never interact with their fans except when on stage. Mostly they just sit on that picnic table and trade superheroic quips. When they do interact with their fans it’s as a tool of The Man, telling the crowd that rebellion is wrong so they should just sit down in their seats and enjoy the glamor.

Ugly as they may be, the Ramones, also presented as nice guys but without superpowers, regularly interact with their fans throughout the film, even helping them trash and burn the school at the end as that evil, rebellious rock music blasts over the PA driving everyone into a giddy, lighthearted frenzy of destruction.

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After the films came out, KISS remained focused on the safe, comfortable, empty style they touted in the film, and did very well as a result. They continued to fill stadiums, inspired action figures, sold millions of records and appeared on popular variety TV shows. Today they mostly play the same songs they were playing in the film. But being clever marketers and corporate stooges they are each worth millions so who cares?

The Ramones, while certainly recognized and admired, remained essentially underground, playing smaller clubs and never selling that many records. Now they’re all dead, except for the drummers.

I’m coming to the conclusion that my parents were right all along.