Control Nathan Rabin: Scooby-Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery
I have a confession to make. With the latest installment of Control Nathan Rabin, I may have broken one of the rules I set for this column. To be fair, I’m not sure this was a rule anyone other than myself knew existed. In fact, I’m not sure it was really a rule at all. Looking back, it’s more like a rough guideline.
When I conceived this series, I figured that I would only cover movies (and other pop culture ephemera) that I had never seen or experienced before, and consequently would serve as a fresh torment. I violated this rough guideline originally for the Corey Feldman episode of Wife Swap, which I wrote about for the first patron-only “Control Nathan Rabin” entry, which you can totally read if you pledge. I’m glad I did because holy fuck is that a fascinatingly disturbing hour of television, and one that casts my boy the Feld-Man in a dark, creepy light, less as an unusually eccentric celebrity than as the authoritarian leader of a modest sex cult.
I was moved to make the flamboyantly punctuated Scooby Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery one of the candidates for Control Nathan Rabin, (the other being Scooby Doo! Wrestle mania Mystery)—the column where I allow the living Saints who fund this site via Patreon an opportunity to choose between one of two punishments I must endured, then write about—when I was out one day and my wife texted me, “Dex is watching Kiss Meets Scooby Doo.”
I was proud that my three year old son was interested in two of the preeminent pop culture icons of my youth and adolescence. Yet I was also a little mortified that he was attracted to two ubiquitous entities that I’ve spent much of my adult life writing negatively about. I’m no fan of Scooby Doo, or Hanna-Barbera, the prolific, overly loved crap factory that churned it out, alongside plenty of other barely-animated horse shit, or the rock and roll band Kiss.
So I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this seemingly mercenary shotgun wedding of things I’m on record as thinking are on the “terrible” spectrum—Scooby Doo, Hanna-Barbera, Kiss—is actually pretty terrific. It was made by people who clearly love Kiss, and have a deep and nuanced understanding of their legacy but who have a sense of humor about Kiss as well.
Mystery has an enormous amount to offer world-weary veterans of the Kiss Army, obviously, but it has a surprising amount to offer Kiss detractors as well. As someone who has extensively covered Kiss’ many, many nadirs for My World of Flops and Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club, I was tickled that this loving cross-pollination of Scooby Doo and Kiss mythology delves deep into such notorious and little-loved elements of Kiss’ mythology as Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (produced, not coincidentally, by Hanna-Barbera) and Music from “The Elder”, the group’s ill-fated concept album/play for critical respect.
Scooby Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery is perversely if refreshingly devoted to revisiting Kiss’ biggest embarrassments and failures as well as its biggest triumphs, starting with a plot that bears such a suspicious resemblance to Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park that it can’t help but come off as an unofficial follow-up/sequel to a cult monstrosity Kiss has done everything in their power to keep from ever being seen, except for, you know, making another amusement-park themed feature-length musical with the same production company a little under forty years later.
But if this weirdly over-achieving project is true to Kiss’ ingratiating ridiculousness, it’s equally committed to getting Scooby Doo right. That starts with setting the action at one of the many, many seemingly haunted amusement parks that have figured prominently in Scooby Doo throughout the ages.
In this case it’s Kiss World, where a Red Witch has been haunting the proceedings, leaving a tell-tale red glow wherever she works her sinister magic. In one of many signs that this will be far sharper and more satirical than the usual Hanna-Barbera affable sub-mediocrity, Manny Goldman, the park supervisor, is voiced by the wonderful Garry Marshall, whose sister Penny even more remarkably voices a character known only as “The Elder”, as in Music from “The Elder.”
It’s hard to say what’s more awesome or surprising: that Hanna-Barbera decided to use characters and iconography from Kiss’ biggest, most embarrassing flop in Kiss-sanctioned official product, or that they got Penny Marshall to play a wise woman from outer space.
Alarmed at the re-appearance of a frightful and unfortunate supernatural entity, Goldman asks for “The hottest mystery solvers in the world!”
This takes us to the Mystery Machine, where the meddling kids in the Scooby Gang are done up in Kiss make-up. This might seem a little off-brand for Velma, the Juno/Daria of the Scooby Doo universe. Sure enough, early in the film, Velma concedes wryly, “Personally, I find (Kiss') side-show act a little juvenile” but my mother encouraged me to take a more active role in my friend’s interests.”
This is true to Velma’s fundamental character (and let me assure you, friend, friend, I spend a lot of time thinking about what is and isn’t true to Velma’s fundamental character) but it also allows her to act as an audience surrogate subverting the action from within. The filmmakers wisely allow Velma to call bullshit on the self-aggrandizing Kiss mythos. She’s essentially heckling the movie from inside.
Fred shares Velma’s skepticism regarding Kiss. On the TV show, he was WASP boredom personified but Scooby Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery has enormous fun ratcheting up his white-bread wholesomeness to deliriously comic levels; instead of Kiss, he is forever signing the praises of the Ascot Five, a group that shares both his milquetoast sensibility and his signature fashion accessory. He’s annoyed that Daphne is fixated on Star child (AKA Paul Stanley) because he can’t compete with a rock star but also because the sixty-something Stanley is old enough to be her grandfather.
In Scooby Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery, Stanley is the Casanova of the bunch, an artiste with an all-seeing eye and a love for painting portraits. As “The Demon” Simmons is basically just a fucking asshole, a grouchy, growling monster perpetually in a bad mood who has a real problem with everything, but particularly smart, sassy, strong women like Velma.
As for Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, AKA the Other Guy and the Other Other Guy, they do what Ace Frehley and Peter Criss would have done but more proficiently and with nowhere near as much personality or charisma. And for much less money and less back-talk and attitude. In Scooby Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery, Kiss are of course mega-rock stars and uber-capitalists, but, as in Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, and also their Marvel comic book series, they’re also superheroes with magical powers. Oh, and they’re also super-powered aliens from the mystic realm of Kissteria, where they are the protectors of the mythical Black Diamond the evil Witch is after. Or maybe not. There's a certain level of ambiguity as to how much of this is actually happening and how much is some manner of hallucination.
What I’m saying, dear reader, is that pretty much every single image in this entire gloriously ridiculous film deserves to be air-brushed onto the side of a sweet-ass stoner van in the mid to late 1970s. Scooby Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery consequently appeals to a diverse audience. It appeals, first and foremost, to kids like my three year old son Declan, for whom Kiss is every bit as ridiculous and over-the-top and fictional as a group of mystery solvers whose ranks include a dog with a speech impediment, a stoner who gets high on Scooby snacks, and the flashiest ascot enthusiast this side of Peter Bogdanovich in the form of Fred. But the movie is also clearly pitched to smartass Gen Xers eager to see two oddly simpatico cheeseball American icons lovingly, affectionately lampooned, as well as loyal veterans of the Kiss Army.
Gene Simmons does not appear to have a sense of humor about anything, but particularly himself yet Scooby Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery is nevertheless a sly, winning exercise in self-deprecation featuring running gags like a tour manager/merch guru who is forever giving the hard pitch for an endless series of officially Kiss-branded products, from smelling salts to a Kiss toilet. When these products are hawked their price magically appears onscreen, Home Shopping Channel-style. When Kiss agrees to play a free concert and give away free tee-shirts (which is less plausible and much harder to buy than Kiss being superheroes from another dimension) the tour manager is so shocked and horrified that he calls for his official Kiss brand defibrillator.
Lastly, the movie is designed for stoners. I’m not sure it makes sense for “I Was Made For Loving You”, Kiss’ cynical, lascivious disco cash-in, to accompany a trippy set-piece where the Scooby Gang and Kiss are chased through an alternate dimension by the Evil Witch, but that doesn’t make it any less surreal or surreally awesome.
With Scooby Doo! and Kiss: Rock and Roll Mystery, Kiss and Hanna-Barbera essentially gave themselves a second chance to make Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park and to get it right. The earlier television movie abomination was a hoot and a half alright, but the laughs were entirely of the unintentional variety.
Kiss is finally in on the joke and thanks to a script that strikes just the right balance between trippy rock and roll self-mythologizing and wry self-deprecation, the joke is funny, inspired and sustained far longer than I would have imagined possible. This isn’t just a follow-up/spiritual sequel to Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park; it’s also the antidote and the answer to their earlier mistake. I never thought I would say this, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with an animated Kiss and the Scooby gang. If a longtime Kiss detractor like myself can be won over by its goofball charm, I suspect you might be as well.
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