Gene Simmons of KISS was just whistling past the graveyard when he said that the notoriously bad 1978 KISS TV movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park would make a great double feature with cross-dressing director Ed Wood’s 1959 Plan 9 From Outer Space, a perennial top entry in “Worst Movies Ever Made” lists. For one thing, if Phantom was such a success at being deliberately campy, as Simmons implied, why did the KISS organization impose a ban on their employees even mentioning the movie’s name out loud, on pain of summary termination?
And besides, the perfect double bill companion for Phantom wouldn’t be some old black and white low budget schlocky horror show from Hollywood’s underbelly. The perfect match would be something that was just as godawful, and for all the same reasons. And that would be another notoriously bad made-for-TV movie from 1978: The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Both films were televised within a month of each other, and both had the same motive powering them: a ham-fisted money grab. Take something that’s a huge success in one medium, drop it into another medium, and see if you can wring some more money out of the thing. Do it quick, and don’t bother with such trifles as having a script that makes any sense, or making sure the people in charge have any clue what they’re doing.
In both cases, we get a finished product that was so bad it was good, and then just kept going until it circled around to bad again, and then stayed there.
The closer you look, the more similarities stack up on top of one another. KISS had reached the point in 1978 where their success as a recording and touring act seemed limiting. Becoming movie superheroes appeared to be the logical next step. They were promised “Hard Day’s Night meets Star Wars.” Who could say no to that?
George Lucas had a bona fide hit movie on his hands with the original Star Wars in 1977. But no one was clearly seeing the kind of franchise Star Wars was going to become -- the sequels, the licensed merchandise, the books, the video games, the prequels. No one could see it because it had never happened before, Star Wars basically invented all that stuff. So Lucas was easily swayed. Turning over his characters and visual universe to a bunch of smooth-talking TV guys wanting to make a Holiday Special must have seemed rational at the time. Lucas has since said he doesn’t even remember the production company he handed the reins to (Smith-Dwight Hemion Productions), but in retrospect it “probably wasn’t a good idea. But you learn from those things.” And learn he did. After 1978, the only person allowed to wreck George Lucas’ original vision of Star Wars was George Lucas. See: Prequels; Star Wars.
KISS complained that KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park was a huge embarrassment because it made them look cartoonish. It’s hard to figure what other possible outcome they imagined, though, since they signed on with Hanna Barbara to make the thing. That’s right, Hanna Barbara -- the same studio that gave the world The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo. In fact, Phantom is basically just an episode of Scooby-Doo, complete with a vengeful mad scientist building killer robots in a secret lab deep beneath the surface of an amusement park. You know, that old story. And given the members of KISS’s complete and utter lack of acting experience or talent, the result was flatter than any performance Barney Rubble or Shaggy ever turned in. (Ace Frehley’s stuntman shows up on the screen quite a lot. It’s kind of noticeable, too, since the stuntman is African American, and Ace is not.)
There’s a reason why The Star Wars Holiday Special is the grand finale of the 2004 book What Were They Thinking: The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. Set mostly on Chewbacca’s home planet, the bulk of the dialogue is turned over to Wookie grunts and roars. No subtitles, either (probably just as well). There’s the delightful segment wherein Chewbacca’s father settles in to enjoy some…well, what can only be described as internet porn. That, plus the thing that sure looks like a laptop hooked up to what sure looks like a big flatscreen on the wall, and you have to give them credit – they did a pretty good job predicting the future. Otherwise it’s all quite wrong. Being a TV Holiday Variety Special, of course you have to have guest stars. And who says “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” better than Bea Arthur, Art Carney, and Diahann Carroll?
Besides KISS’s threat to put any member of their crew who uttered the name of their movie on the unemployment line, George Lucas once famously said of The Star Wars Holiday Special that “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.” Since the special was shown only once and never officially released thereafter, the only copies available were homemade videos, tapes of the original network airing. Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia, once cut a deal with Lucas: she’d do commentary voiceover work for Star Wars Blu-ray discs in exchange for a copy of the Holiday Special. She claims she plays it at parties when she wants people to go home.
The KISS project was, of course, meant to be the launching pad for their fabulous new career as superheroes of the big screen. That particular rocket is still on the pad.
Both of these fine features have attained solid Cult Classic street-cred in the intervening years. Once the stuff of legend, those homemade videos have since found their way online. Look no further than YouTube, natch, but for a pristine version of The Star Wars Holiday Special, complete with vintage network TV commercials of the day, check out Rifftrax. Of course, you get the Rifftrax guys mocking the show throughout, which is very helpful. Still, you might want to take some Dramamine first. And prepare to ask yourself “What were they putting in the water in 1978?”