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:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Wherein The Horror Aisle Meets The Movie Crypt...

Firstly, let me apologize for the unexpected and extended period of radio silence. Over the last few weeks I have been putting in between 75 – 90 hours between two jobs, and it has seriously cut into my time for writing. With that out of the way, let’s proceed…

On the evening of Wednesday, March 11th I (and a to-be-announced contributor to The Horror Aisle) attended a special event at the venerable Alamo Drafthouse location on South Lamar – a live edition of The Movie Crypt, hosted by Adam Green and Joe Lynch, accompanied by a double-feature of their respective new movies, Digging Up the Marrow and Everly. I was in no way prepared for what my admission fee would provide – close to six hours of entertainment, insight, vintage trailers, dirty jokes, laughs, and two kick-ass (and vastly different) films. Since the films were released by two different companies, this was a one-shot affair, and one that was not to be missed. If you were not lucky enough to be in Austin and attend, you can recreate the experience in the comfort of your own home by checking out Episode #95 here (http://geeknation.com/podcasts/the-movie-crypt-ep-95-live-in-austin-tx/) - so grab a copy of Digging Up the Marrow (out now) and Everly (out April 21st), along with your beverage of choice and strap yourself in!

The evening started, appropriately enough, with the theme from The Movie Crypt, some patented Adam and Joe banter, and some audience Q&A. Adam shared a story behind the creation of Marrow, which found its initial inspiration in a piece of fan mail that he received, claiming that Victor Crowley from the Hatchet movies was real, and offering to prove it. After seeing Alex Pardee’s art exhibit, the specifics of the film really began to take hold. Leading up to Digging Up the Marrow were three vintage trailers chosen by Adam Green which set the stage perfectly – E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial, Nightbreed, and The Blair Witch Project. Just a word on that last one – I hate The Blair Witch Project with a burning, white-hot passion. I stood in line for close to three hours to see the movie on its opening night at the Dobie Theatre in Austin, and left the theatre looking like I had just walked through someone’s stinking clingy egg-fart. It was one of the most bullshit, disappointing movie experiences I have ever had (right up there with seeing Wolf opening night on mushrooms). All of that is to say that Marrow is emphatically not Blair Witch Project. It is not found footage, it is not a waste of 80-some-odd minutes of your life, and it does not end with some douche standing in the corner.  So now that we’ve addressed the elephant in the room, what exactly is Digging Up the Marrow? It is a fictional documentary (not a found footage film or mockumentary, and I think that is a very important distinction to make) inspired by the art of Alex Pardee and some of Adam Green’s own experiences.

I’ll try to stay clear of any spoiler-ish material here so that folks who haven’t yet seen this movie can experience it fresh. In Digging Up the Marrow, Adam Green plays a fictionalized version of himself (similar to his work in Holliston, though obviously played less for laughs). Green receives a package from someone called William Dekker (played to perfection by Ray Wise), who claims to be able to prove that monsters exist and wants Green and his team to help tell his story. Dekker claims to have discovered a world, just under our own, which he calls “The Marrow” where these “different people” live and have developed their own civilization.  Green and his crew begin the process of interviewing Dekker and reviewing his tale, difficult to believe though it may be. After some preliminary interviews, the documentary team travels with Dekker to a secluded cemetery where an entrance to The Marrow supposedly exists. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to state that eventually the team finds what they are looking for before the film takes some surprising left turns. The glimpses of creatures created from Alex Pardee’s art are a highlight of the film, along with Ray Wise’s performance.  If you have enjoyed Adam Green’s previous work in film or television, I can fully recommend this movie. Just don’t think of it as a mockumentary or a found footage film. [In the spirit of full disclosure, I won a copy of the Blu-Ray of Digging Up the Marrow at this screening after asking a question about working with Ray Wise.]

Between the movies, there was time for a post-Marrow Q&A. And for those of you keeping score at home, Joe Lynch’s suggestion for a sequel to It Follows called She Swallows was inspired by my wonderfully offensive sweatshirt from T-Shirt Hell, the design for which can be found here (http://www.tshirthell.com/funny-shirts/she-swallows). Important tidbits shared include Adam’s art preferences, the connection between Marrow and Citizen Kane, the potential for a sequel, and the hopes for a third season of Holliston (along with some of the challenges involved in bringing that to fruition). Adam shared a story highlighting the importance of being kind to the people you work with, no matter in what stage of your career you might find yourself, which was, dare I say it, touching and definitely deepened my respect for him.  Joe also got a chance to share some behind-the-scenes stories, including gems about showing Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer during the filming of  Everly and being surprised that some attendees from the country that gave us A Serbian Film walked out of the movie, as well as an anecdote about Peter Dinklage’s LARP battle skills on the set of Knights of Badassdom.

Before you knew it, the lights were again dimmed for the vintage trailers chosen to precede Joe Lynch’s Everly.  This time we were treated to From Dusk Till Dawn, They Called Her One Eye, and Blood Simple. Everly is a taut and thrilling action movie that, for much of the film, plays out in the titular character’s apartment. Lynch proudly wears his many influences on his sleeve (you may find nods to and echoes from films such as Die Hard, Thriller, Ichi the Killer,  Big Trouble in Little China, Tenebre, and many more), and this coupled with a go-for-broke performance from Salma Hayek had me hook, line, and sinker. Hayek plays Everly, a beautiful woman and mother to a young daughter trapped by her gangster lover Taiko in a life of prostitution and sexual slavery of which she is trying to break free. Taiko discovers her intentions and places a price on Everly’s head, causing all hell to break loose and a number of assassins, trained and otherwise, stream into her apartment in an attempt to claim the bounty.  What follows is a claustrophobic mixture of action, thriller, and horror, the majority of which takes place in Everly’s apartment.  There is a sequence near the end of the film that opens up the world a bit, and the way it was filmed reminded me of some of Dario Argento’s spectacular work during one of the murder scenes in Tenebre, providing you with both a greater sense of the geography of the apartment building where much of the action has occurred as well as a glimpse at the larger world outside. It was a surprising and impressive shot in a movie that had mostly held close to tight quarters.


Though the films shown were markedly different (and distributed by different companies), this double feature was a cohesive experience, anchored by the podcast sequences before, between, and after the films. Adam Green and Joe Lynch seemed as excited to be a part of the evening as did the attendees, and after the event was over they spent plenty of time in the lobby conversing with fans, taking pictures, and signing posters, DVDs, and other memorabilia. Despite staying up way too late on a work night, I’ll be the first to say that the time spent (and sleep lost) were well worth it, and I’d like to offer a hearty (if belated) word of thanks to Joe Lynch, Adam Green, and to the Alamo Drafthouse for an incredible evening.