During the finale of American Rickshaw, which takes place in a television studio, a producer in the control room looks out on the events unfolding on the stage – where Donald Pleasence’s Reverend Mortom is snorting uncontrollably like a pig and the stage’s television screens at his back are showing a hijacked transmission of a youthful Chinese woman gleefully taking it all in – and then looks to his team in pure dismay as he demands, “Will somebody tell me what’s going on?”
That right there sums up the experience of watching American Rickshaw.
Released in 1989, and also known as American Tiger (a title that makes a bit more sense), American Rickshaw was directed by cult Italian director Sergio Martino, who, among many other films, had made the classic gialli All The Colors Of The Dark and The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh. Following the announcement of American Rickshaw making its Blu-ray debut some time ago, I was aware of this. I recognized the name and thought, in my unending quest to see every Italian curiosity, “Well now I have to see this.”
Over the following months, however, I’d forgotten about Martino’s connection, and when my screener of American Rickshaw arrived, I’d tentatively given the disc a spin, assuming it was a random title made by a random American director with no real recognition. When the credits rolled, I switched to the special features and saw the name of Sergio Martino, and that rediscovered revelation made what I had just watched even stranger.
There’s one word to describe American Rickshaw, and it’s this: baffling. From the opening moments where an elderly Chinese woman (Michi Kobi) rests on a bench in the thick of a rainstorm, and random American rickshaw driver (Mitch Gaylord) stops to pick her up, and as she stares at him with a smile reserved only for lovers, you are already baffled. Who is this woman? Does she know this young man? Does he know her? Fucking rickshaws in Miami?
And you’re off and running, and not even five minutes in!
American Rickshaw is a complete and total mystery – not just from understanding the movie’s living-thing plot, but also trying to figure out how the hell this thing got made in the first place. Because of its try-anything kitchen-sink approach, American Rickshaw seems like ideal double-feature fodder alongside John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China – not just because of the superficial Chinese connection, or that it’s a weird, weird twist on the Indiana Jones format, but because it’s a mishmash of half-a-dozen different genres with none of them taking centerstage and allowing a viewer to say, “Oh, well, it’s primarily X.” American Rickshaw has it all: horror, mystical fantasy, intrigue, action, noir, and lastly, unlike Big Trouble In Little China, not a single goddamn joke. And unlike Big Trouble In Little China, where you at least had recognizable faces like Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong taking you by the hand and leading you down into the depths of a studio release, the only person you’ve ever heard of in American Rickshaw is, ironically, another Carpenter connection, Donald Pleasence…but, if you’ve seen a good portion of his output from the mid-‘80s and up until his death in 1995, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re safe.
At this point in his career, even though the Halloween series was proving to be his mainstream bread and butter, Pleasence said yes to everything that came his way. In American Rickshaw, he plays another Sam – this one a television evangelist doing his usual amount of spitting, proselytizing, and money grubbing. It somewhat recalls his role as The President in Escape From New York, only this time Pleasence really goes for it, embracing the curiosities of playing a villainous caricature falsely championing the word of God to enhance his personal worth. He relishes in playing a scumbag, and he’s very good.
Native Italian productions have their own feel, but so do Italian productions that are filmed in America using American crews. The aloofness and clumsiness of the Italian sensibility is still present, only it’s been filtered through the American aesthetic, presenting the final product as glossy, bright, and very Hollywoody. Umberto Lenzi’s Welcome To Spring Break aka Nightmare Beach, a slasher also set and filmed in Florida, is a perfect example. Italian films play by their own rules, the biggest being: it doesn’t matter if the story is illogical. The story might not even make sense to the filmmakers, and as Dario Argento himself has said in the past, it’s less about the story making sense and more about your immersion in the story itself, and the collection of scenes and images that connect them all together. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end; there’s a hero, a villain, and a conflict; there’s danger, terror, violence, and sexytime. To quote Pleasence’s Dr. Sam Loomis, what more do you need?
American Rickshaw and Luciano Onetti’s Abrakadabra, the third in a kinda-trilogy of very stylish and faithfully rendered giallomages that began with Sonno Profondo and Francesca, are the debut releases from Cauldron Films. They are a good sign of things to come from the label; I know for sure I’m eager to see what comes next.
American Rickshaw and Abrakadabra are now available through Diabolik DVD.