May 25, 2021
If you think home video and physical media are on the way out, there's a sure-fire, lightning-fast remedy for your woeful misconception: engage with cult-film powerhouse Vinegar Syndrome. Since their first release in 2013—a set of once-thought-lost films by DIY horror maestro Herschell Gordon Lewis—this cult-film label extraordinaire has grown from a Kickstarted boutique label to an industry-leading brand with a dizzying output.
I first came across Vinegar Syndrome a year or so into their work via a used copy of an intriguing early release, the atmospheric and strikingly photographed 1971 sex comedy The Telephone Book. The core of Vinegar Syndrome's output is, like that film, situated in fare that might (and likely did) play Times Square in the 1970s: cult, underground, exploitation, adult, and beyond. Half the pleasure of following the label is the depth of those obscurities they plunge; for Vinegar Syndrome, 1973's Fleshpot on 42nd St. is not only a title evocative of their offerings, but also a better-known film than their average release.
That said, VS's prodigious catalog (more than 300 deep, and growing by several titles a month) can also surprise you in its breadth. It's easy to see how dark comedies like Robert Downey (Sr.!)'s psychedelic black-power classic Putney Swope and Paul Bartel's post-Polyester Tab-Hunter and Divine re-pairing Lust in the Dust fit the brand, not to mention new-wave/no-wave/nu-wave sci-fi classic Liquid Sky. But here's also 1985's pioneering AIDS-crisis drama Buddies, the theatrical post-modern mind-game thriller The Caller, and 1990's horror-in-the-hood fave Def By Temptation. And how'd they manage to get their hands on Paul Schrader's underrated and relatively star-studded 1988 historical drama Patti Hearst? Vinegar Syndrome also offers key holdings in the Blaxploitation genre, including iconic titles like Rudy Ray Moore in Dolemite and Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, and deeper cuts like Welcome Home Brother Charles by L.A. Rebellion iconoclast Jamaa Fanaka.
As a Baltimorean, I also have to note that they've amplified at least two underground films from layers of my home turf far further underground than John Waters: the truly bizarre '80s sci-fi multicultural buddy art-film The Passing and Don Dohler's lo-fi creature feature Nightbeast (with a third and fourth, Scary Tales with bonus feature Darkest Soul, titles I never expected to get ported past the local section of my '90s video store Video Americain, out courtesy their partner label AGFA).
Recently, VS's output has taken on a maximalist energy as they also promote and distribute a growing roster of partner labels, which include cult and genre kindred spirits American Genre Film Archive and Fun City, edgy LGBT coming-of-age specialists Altered Innocence, and emerging independent voices amplifier Utopia.
To say there's a special excitement around Vinegar Syndrome would be a monumental understatement. Their new-title announcements and seasonal sales have a singular break-the-internet energy. Currently, if you head to their website, you'll see a place-holder page letting you know they're preparing for a sale that goes live 12:01am this Friday. Its name? Halfway to Black Friday 2021 (HBF2021 for short). The sale promises all the things that sends blood rushing to the grey matter and pink parts of all blu-ray fanatics: new title announcements, 50% off catalog titles, special-edition slipcovers, surprise limited-number releases, etc. The sale is currently a hot topic on the Vinegar Syndrome discussion thread on blu-ray.com's forums; at ~3200 pages, that thread is eclipsed in length only by Criterion and Scream Factory, older labels that handle much more prominent titles.
A month or two into the public opening of Beyond Video, the non-profit video library I co-own here in Baltimore, I got my first in-person taste of Vinegarsyndromemania. I received a last-minute email from Vinegar Syndrome personnel; they were on their way to table at a genre convention, and asked if they could do a pop-up in Beyond the following day. We hadn't built up Beyond's customer base yet, and the event was thrown together with barely enough lead time to tweet an announcement. Still, cult-film die-hards I'd never seen before in my 20+ years deeply embedded in Baltimore's film community stormed into the store, each making a bee-line for the Vinegar Syndrome table. There, they fondled the latest releases and asked questions about the brand with childlike awe. For weeks afterwards, the top question in Beyond would be "are you going to do another event with Vinegar Syndrome?"
More recently, I discovered to my pleasant surprise that an old colleague has been working for a couple years now as Vinegar Syndrome's archivist (that VS even *has* an archivist says a lot about this label). I first met Justin LaLiberty while I was programming Maryland Film Festival; more than one year, he travelled from out of town to work long hours as one of a handful of projectionists during the fest. Unfortunately, during the long pressure-cooker hours of the big show, festival programmers rarely have the time to say more than hello to a projectionist, except when things go horribly wrong (which they never did with Justin!), so we didn't get to know each other too well then.
But staying connected on social media, I've long admired Justin's passion, taste, and dedicated insistence that film culture get things right. In his podcast appearances, he compellingly articulates an embrace of adult films as an important form of entertainment and art, coupled with a distaste for the puritanical streak in our culture that puts roadblocks in that path. His work always pushes for greater diversity and access; reading a recent interview with Justin by Letterboxd, I learned that in true archivist fashion he's a power user there specializing in exhaustive list-making, from this very-focused list of works by the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers to this 1800+ ongoing list of films by Black American directors.
So, better late than never: let's pick the brain of archivist Justin LaLiberty about video stores, Vinegar Syndrome and their partner labels, archiving, adult film, the L.A. Rebellion, Criterion bros and the film canon, blu-rays and 4K UHDs, and what personal information you should definitely consider putting on your wedding programs. His passion for Vinegar Syndrome and the unprecedented field of niche home-video labels currently operating is contagious!
I suspect VS’s business heavily skews towards individual collectors rather than to video-rental stores and libraries. What’s your sense of where video-store culture is at today? Do you still have one in your life? Do you have hope for any sort of bounce-back of video stores in the future?
I wish I had a video store in my life! That said, there’s a great one not far from me with Best Video in Hamden, CT, which is a non-profit organization like Beyond Video. I actually think that is the model going forward, which we can also see with the iconic Scarecrow Video in Seattle. We definitely love seeing Vinegar Syndrome titles in video stores, and quite a few that are operating in the country do carry our releases. But I’d love to see more of them. I know that in the era of streaming and VOD, it’s not the first thing people are going to consider when wanting entertainment at home, but—like movie theaters—there's a communal aspect to going to the video store that feels all but lost when trying to browse a streaming service. I greatly miss it. [below: Scarecrow video]
Which video store(s) did you work for, and when?
I worked for Movie Scene (formerly Video Update) in Derry and Londonderry, NH from around 2003 to 2007.
What’s one thing you learned at video stores that sticks with you as relevant to your current work?
Taxonomy is important. And especially so in an age of algorithms. I always appreciated categories and making sure everything was findable (in alphabetical order, in their proper section, etc.) but it’s also important for discovery. Browsing genre sections of a video store is a very nostalgic activity, but is also something built out of trust. You’re trusting that the people managing and stocking the store are shelving these titles appropriately and that there’s an inherent amount of humanity in it.
We don’t have that now with streaming—most of it is algorithm-based and confounding in how it differs from how we, as people, understand genre. For instance, I turned on Hulu the other day and saw Vanilla Sky in the “action” section. That doesn’t compute. And unlike at a video store where you can air grievances to a real-life person, you’re just left shouting into the ether if you disagree with how anything is categorized or recommended.
How about a favorite memory or funny anecdote from those days?
One of my favorite customers was an elderly lady named Nancy Reagan (this may well have not been her legal name, but that’s how she was entered into our database). She would come in every two days in the morning and rent adult films. And usually the more wild ones at that. One day, she just out of the blue thanked me for what we did, and said that she watched the films she rented with her husband who was bed-ridden and ill. And it totally turned around the “funny old lady renting porn” narrative to something profoundly human and touching.
I credit that moment for being one of the reasons that I started to seriously study adult cinema and how it impacts our lives in various ways.
Can you share a little bit about your academic background, and how that did or didn’t lead to your position at Vinegar Syndrome?
I attended Keene State College for my undergraduate degree in Critical Film Studies, with minors in Women’s Studies and American Studies. I focused my thesis around exhibition of grindhouse cinema—in spacial, movie-theater terms, rather than a loose genre—and helped to build a film archive of various 16mm, 35mm, and 70mm holdings that the school had. That led me on my path to being interested in seriously pursuing film preservation as a career.
Following undergrad, I attended the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman Museum to study film preservation. Following that, I did a lot of freelance preservation work, mostly around home movies and regional audio/visual collections, while also working full time as a projectionist in various capacities. When Vinegar Syndrome was doing their initial crowdfunding campaign, I immediately became interested in what they were doing and covered their releases via press outlets; eventually, in my capacity as a programmer for Alamo Drafthouse, I began showing their films to the public. One thing led to another, and I ended up becoming the archivist for Vinegar Syndrome.
One thing I love about popping in a Vinegar Syndrome title is the menu indexing of each film by reel numbers instead of “chapters.” As both a projectionist and a film archivist, that must be gratifying, no?
I love it! It’s one of the first things I noticed when VS started, and it feels a lot more organic to me—especially when you can see the changeover cues still on the source used. Chapters always felt like a weird exercise to me, and I can’t imagine having to determine where those start and stop; film isn’t usually structured that way. I guess David Lynch has had the right idea in fighting against that practice.
Boutique home-video labels these days seem to fall on a spectrum in terms of how “hands on” they are: on one extreme, labels that are involved in the restoration and transfer of the film they’re releasing, working in cooperation with filmmakers, and creating new extras; on the other extreme, labels that license prints from studios and offer no extras (or port over extras from prior DVD releases). Vinegar Syndrome strikes me as arguably the most hands-on label out there. Can you give me a little insight into how VS has built the infrastructure to release deluxe editions of so many obscurities?
I think that all comes from passion. Everyone on staff legitimately loves what we do. It’s not just a job for us, and I think that comes through in the product that we release. Finding elements, scanning them, restoring them, creating special features, creating new art—all of this is incredibly labor- and time-intensive, and you have to have the staff and resources but also the drive to do it. And I’m very proud of the crew that I work with on a daily basis and put their all into it. OCN Digital Labs is our in-house lab facility; doing our scanning in-house greatly helps with workflow and control.
Is Vinegar Syndrome the permanent archive for the original elements of any/many/most/all of the titles y’all release? Tell us a bit about how that work continues beyond a VS title’s disc release.
That is really all dependent on the release. For some titles, absolutely, and for others, those elements could stay with the rights holder once we are done. For anything that we own, we properly care for those materials year-round in a climate-controlled environment and with inspections and repairs as needed.
It’s exciting how many partner labels Vinegar Syndrome has at present: American Genre Film Archive, Fun City, Altered Innocence, and Utopia, to name a few, have all put out titles that have been hits at Beyond. Do some of these labels share personnel/infrastructure with Vinegar Syndrome, or is it primarily a kindred-spirit distribution partnership?
No, these are all separate companies that we admire and want to work with. We share with them our audience and distribution but beyond that, these labels all curate their releases and have control over their product. Very happy to hear that you’ve had success with them!
On an episode of the Just the Discs podcast you cited Rad as the first Vinegar Syndrome title that you shepherded from curation to release. Have there been other favorite titles since that you brought to the table?
My job has primarily been to handle the archive, so Rad was an anomaly. But it was a film I was very interested in getting out there, and I worked on doing so from the start. At this point, most of what I work on is partner-label related, so a lot of those titles I am involved in and am very proud of the work we’re doing with our partners right now. And it’s only going to increase from here.
What are the major beats along the way in taking a Vinegar Syndrome release from idea to reality, especially as it relates to your position and workflow?
The curation process varies by title—but it’s a pretty big group effort. Recommendations from the staff are considered, and I always feel like we have a say. Ultimately, the major things are acquiring rights and elements, which can vary in difficulty. In the archive, this involves taking care of elements and prepping them for scanning. But beyond that is the creation of special features and art. [Seeing a title through from idea to release] can be a long process—from a few months to years, depending on the title.
Wearing my hat as Beyond Video co-owner, I’ve noticed just how many people never upgraded to blu-ray, let alone to players with 3D or 4K Ultra HD playback capability. This has me loving dual-format releases [which package both a blu-ray and DVD together for one purchase price] from the perspective of maximum access. I also worry a bit about a primarily collector’s home-video market moving on to prioritize UHD or another subsequent format and alienating people who aren’t fervent collectors and/or can’t afford an elaborate home theater. Any thoughts?
Blu-ray was democratized a lot faster than DVD was. I think people forget how long it took for DVD to become an affordable option for most consumers, but blu-ray—thanks largely to video-game-console adoption rates—became “cheap” rather quickly. And you can now buy a blu-ray player from most major retailers for around $30, which is less than I ever paid for a VCR or DVD player growing up.
I think the fallacy around blu-ray, and even 4K, is that you need some amazing home theater set-up to use either. You absolutely do not. You can hook up a blu-ray player to almost any TV that a DVD player can hook up to... and these players also play DVDs!
I can more so understand the unease around 4K UHD, which is admittedly a more niche format and one that will likely stay targeted at avid collectors. But blu-ray is a very versatile and affordable format, and at this point, I feel like lack of education to consumers is more of a hindrance than actual cost is.
At the end of the day, technology moves forward, and DVD is old technology. When you put in a lot of time and money into making something look a certain way, you don’t really want it compromised. But beyond that, there are other logistical and financial hurdles that come with creating various editions and formats when they are no longer supported by and large by the consumer base.
I know you’re a big fan of Jamaa Fanaka’s work, and have a great appreciation for the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers generally. Are there other filmmakers of that scene that film fans may miss if they fail to consider exploitation and cult films alongside the art house? Any upcoming Vinegar Syndrome titles along these lines we should get excited about?
No VS releases for other L.A. Rebellion titles, unfortunately. But I’m sure more will be released as time goes on and that work is discovered by more and more people. That said, I’d implore VS fans—and cinema fans in general—to seek out as many of these as possible on home video, including Cohen Media’s release of Daughters of the Dust, Criterion’s release of To Sleep with Anger, and Milestone’s release of Bless Their Little Hearts. All are not only worthwhile films but stellar home video packages too.
More generally, what’s a Vinegar Syndrome back-catalog deep cut you’d urge Beyond Video members to seek out?
It’s hard to pick just one! But since you already brought up Fanaka—usually my go-to recommendation—I’d highlight A Woman's Torment by Roberta Findlay, which includes both the hardcore cut and a softer, R-rated version. The interesting thing here is that the R-rated version is a better film (in my opinion, anyway), which is an anomaly when dealing with adult cinema. Both versions are great in their own right, and fit right into hysterical psychological dramas/thrillers of the 1970s—so fans of films like The Mafu Cage, Symptoms, or Images should feel right at home.
We had an exchange recently about Criterion, which has had me thinking even more than usual about that label’s singular influence, both for better and for worse. The New York Times’ August 2020 article about the lack of representation in their releases, particularly in regards to Black American directors, generated a lot of well-intentioned brainstorming about how cool it would be for certain films by women and/or people of color to get the Criterion treatment.
These can miss a lot of nuance: no one label should be in such a disproportionate position to frame the canon; there are other labels doing equally great work; Criterion’s release history isn’t without some botched prints here and there; titles often suggested, Killer of Sheep being one of the most common examples, already had champions fighting for them (Milestone in this instance) before Criterion started looking in these directions. I’m not sure I have a question here so much as want to hear some of your thoughts in a non-Twitter forum about Criterion and the need for a wider view of home video and the film canon.
I do want to make it clear that I love Criterion! They are a major, major influence on me (and probably any cinephile), and very likely a reason that a company like Vinegar Syndrome had a fighting chance. They kind of started this thing. But to that point, they aren’t the only company doing it—which is very much a good thing! There’s way too much out there for one company—or even two or three—to release everything and do a good job of it.
The issue here isn’t Criterion—the issue ultimately comes down to how we establish and prioritize a canon, and how and why that is supported over anything else. I don’t want to operate under the assumption that The Seven Samurai is a more “important” film than Killer of Sheep just because one has a Criterion release and the other doesn’t. They’re both extremely important to film history, and it feels like the ultimate differentiating factor is how they have been distributed rather than the films themselves.
I have always had issues with canon building and the culture that comes with it—Twitter on any given day is a good example of why. But I’d like to see the discourse be about the films themselves again, and have access—regardless of what company is putting it out—be celebrated. It’s a miracle that so many films across a wide array of genres, countries of production, decades of release, etc. are all being released in a near-constant stream of physical media from a plethora of companies, domestic and international.
Ultimately, we are all in this together and want these films to be seen and discussed whether that’s on VOD, SVOD, video stores, libraries, buying discs, going to film screenings... Just don’t write off a film because it’s not from a certain company and/or canon. That’s no way to live!
You’ve been vocal about your love for fellow genre and cult labels Mondo Macabro, Arrow, and Severin. What are some recent faves (or tantalizing announcements) from them that have your mouth watering?
Severin are just killing it with boxed sets lately. The Al Adamson set blew me away last year, and then they followed it up with The Dungeon of Andy Milligan. I’m just in awe of the care they’re putting into these sets for filmmakers that, speaking of taking down the canon, have never gotten this type of respect before. Arrow did something similar recently with the Weird Wisconsin set for Bill Rebane—just more regional cinema love. And Mondo Macabro is always delivering titles I’ve never seen before, which is hard to do at this point! But the gem from them recently was Queens of Evil, which I’m shocked that I had not seen prior and is going to get a lot of replay from me going forward.
How about another label or two that you want to shout out?
I'd love to give some attention to labels across the pond—notably 88 Films and Eureka, who are both giving due attention to Hong Kong cinema lately, all in great editions. And back stateside, a shout-out to Blue Underground, who are consistently blowing me away with their UHD presentations—particularly with Daughters of Darkness, which has become a reference 4K disc for me.
Can you give us a ballpark figure for how many blus are in your personal collection?
No need for a ballpark! Like any archivist, I keep track of everything, and I database my collection at blu-ray.com. It looks like I'm at 1,861 movies across DVD, blu, and UHD right now, with blu responsible for 1,665 of those!
Have you been back to movie theaters yet? Any film festivals you’re particularly eager to attend when it feels safe for you?
I have not been back to a theater yet, which is due to a combination of safety and there really being nothing that I’m eager to see, unfortunately. I live close enough to NYC that once repertory programming comes back in a big way, I can get down there easily enough. But we aren’t there yet.
I attend New York Film Festival every year, and I’d love to do that in person this year, but we will see where things are in the fall! That said, I’ve been impressed with how institutions (including NYFF) have navigated the pandemic and handled virtual film fests, which were a great way to see new films over the past year safely and without feeling like we were missing too much. But nothing really compares to the film-fest vibe in person. Eager to get back to it.
You’re the plus one at a wedding, and a nice old lady asks you what kinds of films Vinegar Syndrome releases. What do you tell her?
Be honest! Amusingly, my wife and I included a top-ten favorite films list on our wedding program and included Sex World (which VS just recently released on 4K as the first adult film on UHD). Not a single person in our families took issue with it. At the end of the day, it’s all entertainment and positive, no reason to hide from that.
Thanks so much to Justin for taking the time to chat with me and share his knowledge and passion for all things film and physical media! I'm sure having read this to the bottom, you're gonna want to join me in following him on Twitter and Letterboxd. And don't forget to check out his great work with Vinegar Syndrome (whether during the feeding frenzy of this weekend's sale or soon thereafter!).
Feeling generous? You could always donate a Vinegar Syndrome blu-ray to Beyond Video! Here is our Vinegar Syndrome wish list. xoxoxo, E