Color, 1989, 92 mins 5 secs.
Directed by Sergio Martino
Starring Mitch Gaylord, Daniel Greene, Victoria Prouty, Donald Pleasence, Michi Kobi, Glenn Maska, Gregg Todd Davis
Cinestrange Extreme (Blu-ray & DVD) (Austria R0 HD/PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Imagine an Italian attempt to make a mid-'80s Shaw Brothers supernatural film in Florida and that might give you some idea of what to expect from American Rickshaw, a.k.a. American Risciò , which wound up confounding VHS viewers in the U.S. as American Tiger. (Strangely, it has nothing to do with rickshaws or tigers after the first 15 minutes.) This is easily the most bizarre starring vehicle for Mitch Gaylord, an Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast who parlayed his 1984 win into a major theatrical vehicle, American Anthem. This one didn't fare so well and likely contributed to his brief acting career, but it really is something else. Hiding behind the directorial credit of "Martin Dolman" is none other than Sergio Martino, the giallo maestro who had been spending the '80s on a mixture of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, action, and erotic thrillers. Reuniting Martino with his fun Hands of Steel star Daniel Greene, this one absolutely refuses to fall into any kind of genre classification and may be the most unpredictable film in the director's entire career.
One afternoon in Coconut Grove, Florida, college student Scott Edwards (Gaylord) lends a hand to an old Chinese woman, Madame Luna (Kobi), and six months later she sends him a thankful letter he keeps dropping on the ground at home so rats can nibble on it. As it turns out, she's a sorceress who uses her Siamese cat and a cobra to help act as Scott's guardian angels, which comes in handy when Scott agrees to take over the evening's rickshaw-driving gig from his roommate, Daniel (Maska), who has a broken leg. Scott's first customer, Joanna (Prouty), lures him aboard a boat at Biscayne Bay. As they're making out, Scott hears a noise and discovers they're being filmed by a sleaze bag named Jason (Davis), who gets beaten up by Scott and has his odd key necklace tossed out the window into the water. Scott seizes a videotape but, upon coming home, finds out it's the wrong one. Going back to retrieve the evidence, Scott discovers that Jason has been murdered by a strange hit man, Francis (Greene), and is actually the son of a prominent local televangelist, Reverend Mortom (Pleasence). The boat goes up in flames, Scott's dive into the water from the scene has the cops on his trail, and only Joanna, a "striptease artist" forced to accuse him in public, can provide the supernatural clue to finding his destiny. As it turns out, both Scott and Jason shared the same birthday - "June 6, 1966!" - which would actually make Scott's Chinese zodiac sign the horse, but whatever. Then there's Madame Luna, who's instrumental in unmasking the preacher's true nature and clearing Scott's name.
American Rickshaw came near the tail end of a frenzy of Italian production around the Miami, which had hit a peak around the middle of the decade with several Terence Hill and Bud Spencer action comedies. (And, uh, Miami Golem.) That said, the Florida wave certainly ended on a crazy note. Rooftop fights, black magic, demonic transformations, befuddled cops, kitschy synth music by Martino regular Luciano Michelini (Screamers), horoscope jokes, random Confucius quotes, and wildly indulgent Prouty nude scenes. Then there's Pleasence, trying to pull off a Southern accent without giving up his own and instead delivering a performance unlike anything else in his career... especially during the last ten minutes.
After its initial round on VHS including a U.S. release in 1991 from Academy (under that American Tiger name), Martino's film basically dropped off the face of the earth for many years. (It's also one of the hundreds of movies being bootlegged on Amazon Prime streaming from some schmuck's VHS collection, a practice nobody seems to care about stopping.) In 2018, Austrian label Cinestrange Extreme gave the film its HD debut as part of a Blu-ray/DVD mediabook available in three different limited edition options complete with a liner notes booklet by Nando Rohner. It's in German only but features such lovable section headers as "ES IST TRASH," "KONFUSION IN FILMFORM," and "DER GAYLORD." Given that there hasn't been a new transfer of this one in nearly three decades, it's refreshing to see it actually looking nice in that late '80s Italian film stock sort of way. It's colorful and pleasing if a bit on the soft and flat side, which is pretty standard for the era. There's definitely no better way to make the acquaintance of this crazy quilt of a movie, and if you're in the right mood it'll definitely win you over. Audio options include the original English track as well as Italian and German options with optional German subtitles. The English track has some audible wear in spots at the beginning but smooths out pretty quickly; it's not the most dynamic thing you'll ever hear but it gets the job done.
The one substantial is a new featurette (18m32s) compiling interviews with Martino and set designer Massimo Antonello Geleng, who mostly chat about their careers in general before getting to the film at hand about 7 minutes in and the "infernal heat" of shooting in Miami during August. Martino also reveals the technical hiccup and improvisation that led to the weirdest moment of the film's climax, which really has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. Also included are the Italian title sequence (from VHS), an image gallery, German and English trailers, and a bonus one for The Iron Commissioner and a trio for Subconscious Cruelty.
Reviewed on January 13, 2019.