The name Richard Brandes may not be the first to trip off the tongue in a misty-eyed reminiscence of ’90s genre stalwarts, but perhaps that’s an oversight that needs correcting. Dave caught up with the writer, producer, director and occasional actor for a look back at the early days of his impressive career.
About fifteen years ago I remember watching Richard Brandes single-handedly quash a jewellery store robbery in the opening minutes of Martial Law (1990). Needless to say it wasn’t actually Richard Brandes, and it’d be quite some time before I’d realise that I’d been fawning over the dexterity of Chad McQueen, having been foxed by Delta DVD’s mutton-headed artwork, which placed the writers name in big bold letters above the lead actors headshot [see below].
A comical oversight, but one that has a coincidental symmetry with the filmmaker’s own career; as far from merely taking a screenwriter’s pay cheque, Brandes had ideas way above pen-handling. By the start of the ’90s, the filmmaker already had a couple of movies under his belt (a pair of films for director William Webb: Party Line (1988), starring Richard Hatch, and The Banker (1989) featuring the God-like Robert Forster), and he was keen to edge deeper into the film industry.
“I had made it clear from the start that I was not going to be content to only write, and had other goals and aspiration to direct and produce”, Brandes told me during a series of conversations. “I knew that this would afford me greater control over my writing, so I told them I wanted some sort of producing credit on Martial Law, which resulted in becoming an associate producer, and I continued from there”.
While Brandes might only consider both Martial Law and its sequel to be a stepping stone in the direction he eventually wanted to head (“It was a big success, but I had kind of lost interest in the genre after the first one”), there can be no doubting that both pictures are a triumph of crisp hand to hand combat, blended with a good dose of police procedural. Their storylines may be rudimentary, but there’s no getting away from the likeability of these slick actioners, as the martial arts expert on the force Billie Blake (Cynthia Rothrock) teams up with undercover wunderkind Sean Thompson (McQueen, who’d later morph into Jeff Wincott for the sequel) to battle drug smugglers, car thieves and police corruption.
Although Paul Johansson doesn’t quite nail the brooding villain in part two, and Billy Drago isn’t let off the leash to wreak evil-tinged mayhem, there’s no doubting the scene-chewing prowess of David Carradine, who’s marvellous as Dalton Rhodes in the first feature. “I was on the set every day”, remembers Brandes, “And it was a pretty big thrill to be working with Carradine because I had been a fan ever since I saw his critically acclaimed performance in Bound For Glory. So being there and watching him work was a real treat for me.”
“We also had Harold Sakata in the cast, who of course played Oddjob in Goldfinger, and that was cool as he’d become a bit of an iconic figure in the years that passed. Needless to say though, Chad and Cynthia made it a pretty special experience too; Chad came from such a renowned Hollywood lineage, while Cynthia was regarded as legendary in her own right for her Martial Arts accomplishments. I have to say that although I’m hesitant to say what I feel about the film today, I do have a favourable impression of it, simply because it was a good opportunity early in my career which in turn lead to other opportunities”.
The gigs that followed saw Brandes don the producer’s jacket for the maligned yet schlockily adorable horror movie The Fear (1995), before assuming the director’s chair for the first time with the little-seen bawdy comedy, California Heat (1995). It would be his reacquaintance with his friend Kurt Anderson, though, that would see Brandes make the finest two films of his career: the Hitchcockian potboiler Dead Cold (1995) and the double-crossing quest for stolen gold adventure, The Killing Grounds (1998).
“It was Kurt that got me into all of this in the beginning” says Brandes of his frequent collaborator. “We met when he was an agent and I was pursuing acting. I ran into him when I was coming out of an audition for a commercial in a building in Hollywood. We’d met briefly a few months earlier at a showcase that my acting class put on, but here we just got talking and he told me he’d just left the agency he was with to produce his first film. He went on to say that he had really enjoyed watching the scene I wrote at my class, and asked if I had any scripts he could read. As luck would have it, I had just finished my first feature length script, so I gave it to him, and the rest is history”.
It’s certainly a fruitful relationship that bore a bountiful harvest, and one where collaboration played a pivotal role, particularly with Dead Cold. “It’s without doubt the one that I hold closest to my heart. It evolved from a short synopsis that Kurt and another person had written. Pierre David expressed an interest in becoming Executive Producer based on the outline, and I subsequently wrote the script, produced and shot second unit, while Kurt directed it. In fact, I remember Pierre telling me that it’s one of his favourite films that he’s produced”.
A bold statement indeed from David, a French-Canadian one-man movie-factory. But Brandes’ taught three-hander is a work of perfectly-poised brilliance which sees Eric (Chris Mulkey), an L.A-based screenwriter, head into the back of beyond with his wife Alicia (Lysette Anthony) following a traumatic carjacking incident that leaves him with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Nestled away in seclusion, Eric uses this as an ideal opportunity to work on a screenplay, but when in the midst of a furious snow storm, a stranger (Peter Dobson) winds up on their doorstep, they find their harmonious getaway plunged into peril.
Although available on a handful of streaming sites, Dead Cold lies perilously close to going out of print on DVD, which would be a real shame. As well as being Brandes’ most richly-crafted feature, it’s also a supremely underrated thriller; which with a writer as its principal character, begs the question as to whether there’s a handful of autobiographical nods hidden in the screenplay? “Yeah, at the time I wrote Dead Cold I could definitely relate to Eric’s need to get away from the big city. A few years prior to shooting the film I had actually bought a cabin in the mountains near Big Bear Lake to do just that, and I was spending most of my time there too, so it certainly inspired me. Also, Eric’s struggle with the producers on the script he’s writing is certainly something I could relate to as a screenwriter!”
While it’s obvious to see the synergy in combining both Martial Law films for a double-feature, likewise with the Brandes twosome that saw out the century, Devil in the Flesh (1998) and Devil in the Flesh 2 (2000), there’s credence to be had in the coupling of both Dead Cold and The Killing Grounds, with deception being the core theme of both. In the latter, we once more head out into the mountainous wilds, where following a huge heist that netted three million dollars of gold, the crooks are keen to transport their haul without raising suspicion and hire a small twin engine aircraft to do so. Alas, as best laid plans often go awry, the plane nose-dives into a remote region and into the lives of a group of hikers, whose collective morality is about to be tested with a very shiny bounty.
“I came up with the idea for The Killing Grounds” states Brandes, “and then Kurt and I developed the story. I must admit I did have a lot on my plate at the time as Pierre David and I were producing The Nurse (1997) which I wrote from an original idea of mine, I just simply didn’t have time to write the screenplay for The Killing Grounds, and it was left in the capable hands of Thomas Ritz. We shot it in the same Big Bear area where we did Dead Cold, and I did have time to direct a little bit of second unit work and do a little acting in it also.”
The Killing Grounds scores a double six with every throw of its dice, but none more so that in the casting, where genre aficionados should swoon in harmony to the brief onscreen reunion of Malachai (Courtney Gains) and Isaac (John Franklin) from Children of the Corn (1984). Gains is superb here, revelling in a reprehensible turn as the crook, Vincent Reynosa, while props too should be directed at Anthony Michael Hall who’s a great fit as the scheming Art; a plaudit that finds Brandes in agreement. “It was Kurt’s idea to cast Anthony, because at that time he was still primarily known for the teen movies that he’d done. Kurt thought this would be an ideal opportunity for him to play against type, and I have to say it was a great idea. He was the consummate professional too, and the same goes for Courtney, who was a real pleasure to work with.”
Unreleased in the UK, you should be able to snag a hard copy of The Killing Grounds from a variety of other territories, and I implore you to do so. Although Brandes’ fingerprints are slightly feint here, it still harbours the characteristics that dominate his screenplays with its well-written characters and a tightly structured screenplay dripping in duplicity, and brimming with betrayal; the perfect recipe for an exemplary slice of DTV majesty.
As a productive decade drew to a close for Brandes, he oversaw two of his biggest hits to date, and the franchise potential for The Devil in the Flesh in the US was made abundantly clear from the off. “It was so well received! It sold out every territory at the American Film Market in one day, and was picked up by HBO for a World Premiere who asked for a second movie almost immediately”.
It’s obvious to see why too, as Brandes mixes sex, seduction and school life to delicious effect as we meet Debbie Strand, played with rapacious fragility by Rose McGowan who is forced to live with her strict grandmother and attend a new school after her mother is killed in a mysterious house fire. Although Debbie is not living in the most comfortable circumstances with her Nan having a penchant for corporal punishment as well as fundamental Christian beliefs, it’s clear to see that this smouldering brunette is far from the type to be bullied into submission, with a formidable streak bubbling behind her innocent façade.
Contrary to most Richard Brandes films to date, The Devil in the Flesh actually has four screenwriters, with one being Kelly Carlin – offspring of George, quite possibly the greatest comedian who ever lived; “Kelly was actually an intern at the time” Brandes informs me, “She read the first draft that the first writer did, and asked if she and her then boyfriend, now husband, Robert McCall, could do a draft – which I was happy to let them do. They’re both really talented and, not too surprisingly, they brought some good humour to it! The director, Steve Cohen (who also shot Martial Law) did a polish as well, and he got the fourth credit.”
While there’s undoubtedly an air of Poison Ivy (1992) to The Devil in the Flesh, it veers more towards the Pierre David-type of a thriller rather than exhibiting the more overt sexuality of Katt Shea’s film. “I don’t know if that was a conscious effort to try and fit that [Pierre David] mould, although to some extent I suppose it could have fit quite snugly with the sort of genre stuff that Pierre and I had previously done together. In general I’m a big fan of thrillers, ever since I first saw Double Indemnity (1944) I’ve especially loved those with a femme fatale. Of course movies like Fatal Attraction (1987), The Hand the Rocks the Cradle (1992) and The Crush (1993) had recently been big hits, so I thought it would be fun to try my hand at something like that”.
All such restraint was swiftly thrown out the window though for the sequel, “The powers that be had requested it be a little steamier” Brandes told me, and out went McGowan as well which was a real shame as her devilish presence in the first movie is possibly among her top five roles to date. “Rose was great. Always my first choice, she had impressed me in The Doom Generation (1995) and Scream (1996) and I felt she was the perfect embodiment of Debbie Strand”. With the character’s name retained, and Jodi Lyn O’Keefe taking over the role of Debbie, Brandes admits that they had hoped to get McGowan to reprise her role; “Rose was approached, but she had just done Jawbreaker (1999) and was basically looking to move on to other things. I did think Jodi did a great job though, and her performance was in keeping with the sexy playfulness I was hoping for.”
Irrespective of the fact I’d happily recommend both Devil in the Flesh movies, there’s no escaping the jarring tonal shift between the two films. While Debbie was able to draw an ounce or two of empathy in the first instalment, the sequel sees her unapologetically psychopathic from the moment she breaks out of the mental institution she was resident in, as she heads to the nearest small town to wreak seductive mayhem. It’s a trashy slice of B-movie fun, albeit one that loses its identity from a very fine original, so ironically each film actually benefits from having completely separate titles in the UK (Dearly Devoted and Teacher’s Pet respectively). Personally, save for the name Debbie Strand, I think they’re more suited to be standalone, seductive schlockers.
The following decade would see Brandes on the set of only two movies, both of which he wrote and directed; the very passable fang-filled delight of Vampires: Out for Blood (2004), and the frankly excellent Penny Dreadful (2006), which featured among the very first wave of releases under Courtney Solomon’s After Dark banner. His output may have slowed, but it’s impossible to overlook the impact that Richard Brandes made to the ’90s DTV scene with a succession of superbly written movies. Currently in the UK, hard copies of every single one of his features from this decade are on the cusp of deletion, teetering on the brink of extinction. It’s a statistic that needs to be addressed, because with the quality of Brandes’ features, they demand to be discovered by a new generation of moviegoers.
Portions of this essay are taken from the forthcoming Budrewicz / Wain book:
‘Schlock & Awe: The Forgotten Genre Films of the 90s Rental Realm’
Follow Dave on Twitter