Monday, April 13, 2015

A Case of Vinegar Syndrome

I recently had the opportunity to conduct an interview via email with Joe Rubin, co-owner of the up-and-coming label Vinegar Syndrome. The folks at Vinegar Syndrome have done some commendable work restoring, presenting, and distributing horror, exploitation, and X-rated films that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside. Without further ado, let’s get into the interview…

(The Horror Aisle) For a relatively new company, it seems like Vinegar Syndrome has been very busy and has made some major waves. Can you tell us a little about how the company got started?

(Joe Rubin) My background is in film programming and archival management. Through a series of random events, I was put in touch with my partner in VS, Ryan Emerson, to work on restoring a film. After that project was completed, Ryan and I stayed in touch and started doing more restorations of other genre films as independent contractors. Eventually we were given an opportunity to relocate our operation, which included my large film collection, to the East Coast. After launching a small film scanning and restoration company, Ryan proposed the concept of starting our own DVD and Blu-ray label, which would focus on preserving and releasing some of the films in my collection. Although it was initially going to be a side project to the lab, it took off beyond our expectations and we began seeking out rights and elements for many other films.

(THA) Vinegar Syndrome is clearly a labor of love for those involved, and one of the most impressive aspects is that you take many films from genres that might be otherwise lost, ignored, or treated poorly - low-budget horror, exploitation, classic soft- and hardcore erotica - and give the films a red-carpet treatment. Are there specific traits, themes, or cast & crew that you look for when considering potential new releases? How much of it has to do with available elements and their condition?

(JR) It all has to do with the elements. Well, mostly. We never release a title unless we have elements from which we can at least perform an acceptable restoration. We never use tape materials. Beyond that, it’s very random. All of the bigger, i.e. Blu-ray, titles are films that we feel either represent genre landmarks or films which are unique to the point that we want them to be available in the home market in the highest possible quality. A lot of my personal interest in presenting X-rated films in great looking versions is because they haven’t been seen like that since they came out, and I hate that these often really fascinating and in many cases weird and totally unique movies can only be viewed in inferior versions which betray the real quality work and love that was put into making them.

(THA) My first VinSyn purchase was Night Train to Terror, which was quickly followed by Graduation Day, Christmas Evil, Raw Force then some of the deeper exploitation and - ahem - adult cuts. Do you find that your horror titles tend to be a "gateway drug" to the full-on Vinegar Syndrome experience?

(JR) I don’t know that I’d call them a gateway drug or anything similar. There are a lot of people who only buy horror titles and a lot of people who mostly buy the X-rated and general exploitation stuff, but have little interest in horror. I think that both the X stuff and the horror films help find audiences for the other. I think a major component that doesn’t get discussed very often, and are probably my favorite types of films that we release, are the weird art movies, like The Telephone Book or Gameshow Models, that I think represent a perfect bridge between ‘mainstream’ exploitation and the more off-beat and underground filmmakers who were working in experimental and X-rated productions at the same time. For me, and I say this often, the basic ideology behind the company is to position all of these films side by side and say that they’re all worthy of restoration and preservation.

(THA) It seems that there is a growing mutually beneficial (and mutually appreciative) relationship between Vinegar Syndrome and venerable Austin institution the Alamo Drafthouse. First, in an article announcing a series of nationawide co-branded VS screenings at Drafthouse locations, your company was described as "the Criterion Collection of exploitation / horror / weirdo movies" - high praise indeed, especially considering that the Drafthouse has its own film distribution company which occasionally treads similar water as Vinegar Syndrome. Most recently, a partnership with the American Genre Film Archive was announced which will see its first fruits released in April with the release of legendary blacksploitation freakout Supersoul Brother. Can you tell us how this seeming match made in heaven came to be, and maybe drop some hints as to what we can expect in the future?

(JR) We feel that there should be a sense of camaraderie between the different companies and organizations that share of goal of preserving and distributing this sort of cinema. I’ve been friends with the guys at AGFA for a while and we’d worked with them on a couple other projects in the past, so it just felt right to sort of pool resources and start releasing some films together. As for the VS Presents series, that was all thanks to Joe Ziemba, who has been a strong supporter of VS for a while. He came up with the idea and it’s been great to bring these movies back to theatres. After all most of them were made before the idea of home video even existed!

(THA) Vinegar Syndrome recently completed what appeared to be a wildly successful IndieGoGo campaign to help fund the VinegarSyndrome.tv streaming service. Could you share a little about that experience? How about giving us a peek at what's to come for backers of the campaign?

(JR) We were really amazed by the generosity of the supporters who contributed to the campaign. We’re essentially wanting to make the site a one-stop source for all things exploitation movies, and a large part of that is trying to bring in titles from other distributors who we’ve worked with and are friends with so as to be as comprehensive as possible. As for VS specific stuff, we’re gonna be uploading hundreds of shorts and features (a lot of it from the sexploitation/X-rated side of things) that we’d just never be able to release on DVD. It’s gonna be a lot of really rare stuff, really weird stuff, etc. We’re also gonna be offering a ton of trailers in HD. The goal is to turn this into something that’s less a VS-themed service but a place for all exploitation/sexploitation/X-rated films and their distributors to display their work. Hence the name change from vinegarsyndrome.tv to exploitation.tv. We want to be as inclusive as possible here.

(THA) As discussed during the crowdfunding campaign, Vinegar Syndrome has a full roster of upcoming physical releases on DVD and Blu-Ray over the next few years. Before we get to the question, let me commend you for stating a clear & solid commitment to physical media. While streaming has its place (and seems to be gaining more ground in the mainstream marketplace), much of the collector marketplace appreciates the experience of holding the item, checking out the artwork, etc. Out of the releases that are already public knowledge, which would you say you are most excited to bring to the public? Has a specific title proven more challenging than you expected?

(JR) Well, the big titles that we’re announcing this week (and will probably already be announced by the time this is published) are our new Blu-rays of Coonskin, Sweet Sweetback’s  Badasss Song and Dolemite. The first two will be coming from our new sister label, Etiquette Pictures. We’ve also got some more Troma madness planned, as well as a couple fresh deals with top X-rated filmmakers brewing. And yeah, we have zero plans to cut down on physical media. They look much better on your shelf than hard drives.

(THA) I'd like to ask you about Vinegar Syndrome's work on Last House on Dead End Street (if you can talk about it). This movie has had a long and storied history, from its production to theatrical screenings, to home video releases, and director Roger Watkins's passing in 2007. Could you share some insight on how Vinegar Syndrome became involved with bringing the film to Blu-Ray, and any specific obstacles or triumphs you have encountered?

(JR) It’s probably the most tedious restoration we’ve ever done. We keep on finding more materials for it that are slightly better in certain places than the previous copies so we’ve had to redo/add to our restoration so many times. It’s tedious. But it’s coming. Unfortunately, no exciting revelations to be told; no fabled 3 hour cuts, etc. But when it does eventually come out, it’ll look better than even, even if it’s still not perfect.

(THA) Are there any "dream projects" that you can discuss which you'd like to see Vinegar Syndrome tackle in the future?

(JR) I feel like every day I get excited about a new lost film. There are so many things I’d love to see get released. At this point, I rarely seek specific films out. They just tend to come to us, like the weird lost hippy/musical/Shakespeare hybrid, Catch My Soul, which we’re gonna be putting out through Etiquette next year.

So there you have it! I’d like to say a hearty “Thank you!” to Joe Rubin, to James Neurath (who helped facilitate this interview), and to everyone else at Vinegar Syndrome. You can check them out at: