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May 17th, 2011

INTERVIEW: Jonathan Morken - Arm and a Leg Grindhouse

The Story of How The Crippled Masters finally came crawling, limping and kicking ass onto DVD.

An interview with Jonathan Morken of Apprehensive Films.

The 1980s are guilty of many cinematic crimes, but none greater – or honestly more downright entertaining – than the series of four (yes, four) films come to be known by martial arts and exploitation aficionados as The Crippled Masters series. Originally released to theaters in 1979 by New Line Cinema (who have since erased it from their resume), this routine story of two underdogs bullied into seeking out martial arts training for revenge was taken to all new, politically-incorrect heights when real life Chinese amputees under the screen names Frank Shum and Jack Conn were cast as the unlikely heroes stumping their way to victory sans arms (Shum) and legs (Conn). At once a high-minded, Special Olympian display of skill and beat-the-odds bravado, The Crippled Masters is simultaneously the lowest and therefore purest and most beautiful form of B-Movie exploitation since Todd Browning rolled the cameras for Freaks in 1932, and no less an important testament to the outer reaches of cinematic genius. Browning would be proud. You will be amazed.

B-Movie.com caught up with Jonathan Morken of Apprehensive Films to talk about their latest releases, the 2nd and 3rd films in The Crippled Masters series, now available wherever movies and finer prosthetics are sold.

B-MOVIE.COM: For the unsuspecting B-movie fan, sum up the sheer brilliant insanity of the CRIPPLED MASTERS movie series.

JONATHAN MORKEN: The Crippled Masters is a four part series of films featuring the amazing skills of the severely handicapped Kung-Fu practitioners Frank Shum (armless) and Jack Conn (legless). The films were made in Hong Kong in the late 1970's through the early 1980's. To see Frank Shum whip around a short staff with his toes and his four-inch flipper of an arm is truly an unbelievable sight to behold. These are truly unique films that represent a very distinct and short period of Asian grind house cinema.

Some people look at the Crippled Masters series of films as a very inspirational set of movies. Two handicapped men overcoming some of the most daunting situations and persevering. Others look at these films as simple Kung-Fu freak shows. I feel these films land in the middle of those two categories. There is a heavy exploitation element to these films, but at the same time our heroes do overcome some insanely tough situations and always tend to enlighten other characters within the films to the struggles of handicapped people. And hopefully enlighten the audience as well.

B: When did you first stumble upon these films as a fan?

JM: I came across the trailer for the original film when I was pretty young, probably 10 years old. I had rented a horror movie, probably one the Nightmare on Elm Street movies as New Line Cinema first distributed The Crippled Masters in the USA. In front of the feature was a trailer for The Crippled Masters and it blew my mind, I distinctly remember watching Frank Shum just getting crazy with a short staff on some sort of riverbank. I had to see it. This was the very early days of VHS rentals and of course I couldn't find the film anywhere. It was years later that I finally saw the film. I discovered the subsequent films as my obsession for these movies grew.

B: And, how did the adventure start to get them onto DVD?

JM: It all started with my quest to try and hunt down the negatives to the original film and put out a re-mastered special edition DVD of the first film. So I started with New Line Cinema, I figured that would make sense, they put out the first movie in a major way. But you have to remember New Line put The Crippled Masters out when they were very small, it was before Nightmare on Elm Street. I called the New Line offices and left tons of messages with no response. If you take a look at New Line's website, The Crippled Masters is not listed in their archive of films. It's a very politically incorrect film and I think they've tried to distance themselves from it. So I then contacted all the small public domain type labels that had some sporadic releases of the film. They all said it was public domain, and for most intensive purposes that's true in the US. The original production company did nothing to protect the film in the US. But that didn't help me with finding the negatives.

I then decided to start buying any weird version of the film I could find online to see if I could find a different version of the film with extended credits. If you watch the New Line prints of the film there is no credits. It just simply starts with a slate that says The Crippled Masters and ends with The End. No director credits, no actor credits, nothing. Almost every copy I could find was just another copy of an old New Line print. Then I finally found a different version I bought from Europe and paid a bunch of money for. Low and behold there is a 3-minute opening credit sequence that New Line must have cut off. The film was titled The Crippled Master not Masters and the opening montage, which is really great, focuses on Ho Chi (the master in the basket) a lot and I believe the film was marketed as Ho Chi being the master of the cripples in Europe. Beyond having actual names for the people involved with the film, it had a distribution company logo that I had never seen before. Now I had something to go on.

B: Wow, I had no idea New Line would want to stray away from this cinematic curiosity, with there genre leanings, even at the point of their demise it would seem a no-brainer for the cult DVD market.

JM: It seemed strange to me as well, some more info about with the next answer.

B: So, no luck worldwide finding a print to the original film in the series, or did this new information from the discovered credit sequence lead you somewhere more promising?

JM: I was able to track down the original distribution company in Hong Kong, who's still in business today. I told them who I was and explained my research. They had indeed licensed the film to New Line and claimed ownership to the Crippled Masters currently. New Line had let their license expire on the film, so it was available. But the main problem was the company in Hong Kong didn't have the negatives only a deteriorating print and an old Beta SP transfer. The owners in Hong Kong wanted a lot of money up front and percentage to license the film. More money than we had for the release. So I went to Synapse Films, who I had spoken with about where they obtained their trailer for the 42nd Street Forever disc, during my research of the Crippled Masters series.

Synapse wanted to partner up on the release, so together, we offered the company in Hong Kong an advance (smaller than their ransom note) and a percentage. But it was not enough, so we weren't able to even view the elements of the film. My contacts in Hong Kong claim ownership to part 1 and 4 of the series.

Part 2 and 3 were produced by different companies in Hong Kong. One of the biggest problems with low budget exploitation films from the East is the films were made very cheaply and specifically for the drive-in/grind house markets. They didn't foresee the longevity of these films. It was common practice to destroy the elements and prints to these types of movies once they had their initial run, as the storage costs outweighed their potential value.

B: That seems to be one hurdle of releasing obscurities, when you finally do track down ownership, the owners want much more money than the market for these films can ever support, even more now than ever as DVD sales see a decline and content is at an all time over glut.

JM: Exactly. We have been very pleased so far with the sales of part 2 and 3, but I don't think the market would support the kind of funds it would take to get part 1 and 4 out in a collectors’ format.

B: So how did you finally track down prints or elements for parts 2 and 3?

JM: Since part two and three are owned by different production companies and distributors than part one and four, we didn't run into the financial hurdles we did with the original. But the downside was the elements for these two film are almost non-existent. The DVDs are mastered from old broadcast video masters, the best sources available that we could track down and we priced the DVDs accordingly. We set the MSRP at $12.95 because they're not re-mastered, but there is a definite market for these films. I feel it's better to release a film in a lesser quality master than let it disappear into obscurity because you can't get a hold of a nice print or the negatives. When we do a re-mastered DVDs like we did with the 30th Anniversary of Hardware Wars it comes out with an MSRP of $19.95. If all we can locate is an old pre-existing transfer we generally bring them out at the $12.95 price tag. It gives the fans the choice to at least be able to enjoy a film that would otherwise never be available.

B: The fact that you did your homework and exhausted all the avenues to get the best possible versions out is all that matters.

JM: We do our best to try and find the best source materials possible. If we come across better quality elements down the road, it'll be special edition time!

B: So, what has been some feedback from the fans, I assume there is a whole new generation of weirdo cult movie lovers out there who are blown away by these movies, especially in such politically correct times. Something we didn't have to deal with when these movies first came out in the 80s on video shelves and in theaters.

JM: "Astonishment" about sums it up. Already existing fans of the first film are all pretty blown away that there are sequels out there. Everyone is like "Crippled Masters 2 & 3, where did these come from?" Then I tell them there is a fourth film and it's like I'm speaking another language, their jaw just hits the floor. One fan even called Apprehensive Films "The New Old New Line Cinema!" Which I take as a great compliment. The new generation of cult movie fans that are just now discovering these films really can't believe they even exist. There's a lot of "I Can't Believe Someone Even Made This!" I think it's a huge shock to the new fans, especially since we live in a strange politically correct era that has also created such intense shockers as A Serbian Film. When the cult audiences are as jaded as they are now and can still be completely floored by a film that was made 25 years ago, I think that really says something about exploitation filmmaking from the 1970's and 1980's.

B: I think anytime you can throw fans for a loop you have succeeded, and with these two releases, you have thrown them into a brick wall, in the best way possible.

JM: Anytime I can throw a fan into a wall make me feel good!

B: So, what about Jackie Conn and Frankie Shum, are they still with us, and did you try to find them - I have to say that a 'Crippled Commentary' would be quite a score.

JM: Yes it would be. We tried tracking Jack Conn (AKA Chiu-ming Hong, Chao-ming Kang) and Frank Shum (AKA Sung-chuen Shen) down, especially when we were trying to get the special edition of the original going. All of our contacts in Hong Kong had no info for the two stars anymore and no one could confirm in they are still alive. Beyond our contacts in the Far East, we tried searching for them on the Internet and came up dry. I hope they are still alive and if they do surface I'd love to interview them. They would be a wealth of information. As cheaply and quickly as these films were made and disposed of, I wouldn't be surprised if there are more films featuring Jack Conn and Frank Shum that never made it to our shores.

B: Well, we are making you personally responsible for tracking down every Jackie Conn and Frankie Shum movie that exists, and releasing it.

If I can track them down I'd be happy to release them! So if anyone out there reading this knows of any others give me the heads up.

B: So, which movie do you personally like more - Crippled Masters 2 or 3 - and why?

JM: I'm a big fan of part two. I personally like it better than the original. It has so much going for it in terms of amazing crippled kung-fu action. It features some pretty long and incredibly choreographed fight scenes. Some really inventive stuff like the skateboard with throwing hooks. It's just a lot fun. I'm a huge fan of all four films, but part two just seems a notch up on the action scale.

B: Tell us about some of the other cool stuff your company, Apprehensive films, is up to these days - not that releasing these incredible crippled classics is not enough!

JM: We've got a lot of stuff coming up. On the cult movie end of things we have plans for releasing The Devil (1981), an Asian horror film with more insect vomiting, a very popular gross-out trend in 1980's eastern horror films, than I've ever seen. We're also working on a new edition of Naked Massacre (1976). We'll be bringing out an indie horror film called Since I Don't Have You, shot on Super-8mm in the 90's. Also on the roster is a 3D short film (which will be packaged with a currently undecided feature) version of The Raven with a score by Claudio Simonetti and a voice over by Billy Drago. I'll be directing a documentary called Video Disease Volume 1: Human Anomalies, that is being produced in house.

Check out www.afcinema.net for all the latest updates on Apprehensive Films releases.



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