Vinegar Syndrome
Films oddities like "Liquid Sky" are Vinegar Syndrome's specialty. (Image via Instagram)

Vinegar Syndrome Is Preserving the Cinematic Oddities of the Past

Spanning everything from arthouse to horror, the home video label makes it a mission to restore overlooked film curiosities from the past.

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Vinegar Syndrome

Spanning everything from arthouse to horror, the home video label makes it a mission to restore overlooked film curiosities from the past.

From pornographic adaptations of the Bible to psychic wars brought on by mass samurai slayings, Vinegar Syndrome has you covered. Vinegar Syndrome is a home video label dedicated to making independent and unusual films available in comprehensive packages. The label started in 2012 with a desire to make Golden Age porn available on the home video market; however, their first release, “The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis,” was a sign of how their releases would soon encompass the exploitation, horror and unusual films of the past as well. Lewis was a filmmaker known for his gory horror films, and the decision to revive his unsung sexploitation work made Vinegar Syndrome’s fascination with delving into the unexplored immediately evident.

Vinegar Syndrome may specialize in erotica, horror and exploitation, but their films span across almost every genre. While an erotic puppet musical and a postapocalyptic film about frog people are at opposite ends of the genre spectrum, the rest of their strange genre-mashups fill in the space between them. The catalog uses its diverse batch of movies to guarantee the label’s accessibility. As long as you’ve got a curiosity to check out the unfamiliar, Vinegar Syndrome’s offerings will almost certainly reward you.

More than any other home video label, their release announcements display an even amount of intriguing obscurities and rescued favorites. The specificity may work to satisfy niche wants among the label’s fans, but the extreme obscurity of other releases makes the product feel like a long-held treasure finally seeing proper distribution. In an interview with Diabolique magazine, Vinegar co-owner Joe Rubin said, “‘The Telephone Book’ was something of an inspiring discovery for me when I first saw it at age 16. Being able to restore and release it was really satisfying.” The film selection comes from a group of lifelong film obsessives, and the label’s output continues to feel both curated and unpredictable.

In a 2018 podcast interviewing the label, Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin and Jeff Gittel discussed the seemingly impossible task of licensing a bleak exploitation film called “The Candy Snatchers.” However, the company was able to release the film only one year later. The label’s steady growth and success has helped it to secure other unthinkable releases of counterculture classics like “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” “Putney Swope” and “Liquid Sky.”  The quality of the label’s output makes the increasing ambition of the release schedule feel truly exciting; no other label feels as essential in reintroducing important works into the larger cinematic canon.

Vinegar Syndrome’s consistently accomplished transfers ensure their releases will provide the ultimate presentation of each film. Their pride in locating the absolute best materials to restore is completely clear in the quality of the final product. The nuanced restoration work avoids the pitfalls of too many restorations, e.g. digital noise reduction, and honors both the filmmakers’ intent and the inherent qualities of the film format.

The restorations also give the films the opportunity to be reevaluated. Many of the films in their lineup were available solely through VHS tapes, so the movies were frequently made ugly by cropped and muddy transfers. By ensuring the films can effectively portray their cinematographic aims, Vinegar Syndrome sees that the films will not be encumbered by the limitations of the format.

Vinegar Syndrome doesn’t merely restore some of the films they’re able to license, as some of the filmmakers’ visions were meddled with for their theatrical presentation or initial home video release. Two of their recent releases, “Spookies” and “Tammy and the T-rex,” were heavily edited to accord with production concerns. “Tammy and the T-rex” had its copious dinosaur violence reinstated, and “Spookies” is packaged with a documentary that expounds upon the absurd changes made to the final film. Although the films were changed in a way that defied the creators’ intentions, “Spookies” and the original cut of “Tammy” are available through the label. The inclusion of the cuts is emblematic of Vinegar Syndrome’s endeavor to both preserve and present the ostensibly unseemly history of film.

The special features of Vinegar Syndrome’s releases gives time to the unvoiced histories behind exploitation and independent filmmaking. The supplemental interviews with cast and crew puts the films into a greater context, and the interviewees often give different opinions on why the film succeeded artistically or failed commercially. Knowing the process and people behind the production can give new dimensions to the weirdest aspects of the films. Along with interviews, the releases are enriched by scholarly and historical interviews and commentaries.

One of the greatest joys of Vinegar Syndrome’s catalog is pitching the often ludicrous plots of their films. A musical version of “Othello” set in a hippie commune, a mutant cat claiming victims on a yacht, a serial killer trapped in the body of a snowman — each film offers an experience like no other, and the engaging strangeness of the films is just another facet of what makes the label so essential and singular in the home video market. Vinegar Syndrome’s lineup recreates the feeling of going into a video store; their selection is full of unseen rarities, so you just have to take a swing knowing anything is possible — even zombies trained in martial arts.

Vinegar Syndrome challenges ideas about which films should be preserved and examined. Their movies are presented without the ironic distance that’s commonly afforded to the genre, which makes all the difference. Rather than replacing derisiveness with grave seriousness, the label acknowledges the films’ eccentricities and values with an infectious keenness. The goofier releases are placed on equal footing with the more serious-minded ones so that the uninitiated will feel more open in exploring the catalog’s offerings. While so much of Vinegar Syndrome’s output runs risk of being tainted by claims of inherent inferiority, the label avoids these attitudes by making all films feel like unexplored ground eager to be rediscovered.

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