Vinegar Syndrome


Depending on who you ask, cult film imprint Vinegar Syndrome either officially launched with the release of The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis in January of 2013, or on March 12, 2013.

This was the street date for the first two Drive-In Collection releases from the company, a double feature of Anthony Spinelli films (CONFESSIONS and EXPECTATIONS) and a horror double feature (DEATH BY INVITATION and SAVAGE WATER). However, just before the launch date, Vinegar Syndrome had a chance to prove their dedication to doing right by the films and filmmakers whose work they would be releasing: the filmmakers of SAVAGE WATER approached Vinegar Syndrome and informed them that they were also working on a new DVD release of the film. Despite having already pressed a run of the discs, Vinegar Syndrome opted to cancel their release. It must have been a tough decision, but it was clearly the right thing to do, and now, a little over two years later, Vinegar Syndrome has become hugely important in the world of exploitation film fandom by making good on their mission of “finding, and preserving, and re-releasing rare and lost genre cinema.”

In a little over two years since launching their imprint, Vinegar Syndrome has proven themselves repeatedly to be one of the most important companies in a crowded market of specialized labels releasing cult and exploitation films. Their releases are distinctly different from the output of other labels, frequently giving lost and forgotten films their first release on home video or giving films that have been previously released a new life with thorough restoration. It’s arguable that almost all of the company’s output is essential for certain strains of cinephiles, and the upcoming launch of their ambitious streaming movie channel Exploitation.tv will make many films that have all but vanished widely available to everyone. The following ten releases helped cement Vinegar Syndrome’s reputation as an indispensable resource for films that otherwise would have disappeared into complete obscurity, and give a peek at what is coming when Exploitation.tv launches in May 2015.

Note: Some of these trailers may include content that is not safe for work.



The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (1969–1971, dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis, Blu-ray/DVD)

Right out of the gate, Vinegar Syndrome delivered something that many exploitation film fans never thought they would see. Long thought lost and unclaimed by their director, the three films in The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis were a truly amazing find. Not only did Vinegar Syndrome give these films their first home video release (on Blu-ray, no less), they were also able to restore the films from their original camera negatives. This instantly set a very high bar for presentation for the company, although one that they have easily met over and over again?—?no surprise given that Vinegar Syndrome grew out of film restoration company Process Blue, who have done scanning and restoration for such companies as Synapse Films,Drafthouse Films, and Distribpix. The production of this set was also indicative of how the company would do business going forward: this release was partially funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign, giving film fans a direct hand in the restoration and release of these movies.The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis was a perfect launch for Vinegar Syndrome, representing both their commitment to finding and releasing “lost” films and to presenting all their films in the highest possible quality. Whether or not you can get Mr. Lewis to autograph your copy is another matter.




THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971, dir. Nelson Lyon, Blu-ray/DVD)

Shortly before its release as a Blu-ray/DVD combo, THE TELEPHONE BOOK was screened by some adventurous independent theaters in celebration of its long-awaited appearance on home video. Thanks to Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration process, this weirdo artifact of early 1970s New York hit the big screen for the first time in decades in a beautiful digital HD restoration. And make no mistake, THE TELEPHONE BOOK is deeply strange, an anarchic comedy that follows a sex-obsessed young woman who falls in love with the world’s greatest obscene phone caller and sets out to track him down.

Written and directed by Nelson Lyon, who would go on to work on Saturday Night Live, THE TELEPHONE BOOK is shot in grainy black & white, punctuated by “interviews” with people who make obscene phone calls, and capped off by a wild animated sequence. A truly interesting time capsule of a sensibility tied to a very specific time and place (and probably the only film which features character actor William Hickey sporting a gigantic erection), THE TELEPHONE BOOK is a great discovery and ready-made for midnight-movie revival. Its release in theaters and on home video signaled that Vinegar Syndrome was taking their mission statement very seriously.



NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985, dir. various, Blu-ray/DVD, 7″ single, VHS)

NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR had been available in DVD collections of public domain movies for years when Vinegar Syndrome announced they were considering the film for a Blu-ray/DVD release. The transfer on those public domain collections was watchable, but the color was dull and the film was chopped to full-frame from its original aspect ratio. The company’s fans — with whom Vinegar Syndrome staff regularly interact through their Facebook page — responded enthusiastically to the possibility of getting a high-definition version of the film. And once it was released, it was not hard to see why.

NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR is a deeply weird and profoundly goofy low-budget horror anthology, and nothing could change that, but Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration made it look like a completely different movie. This release gave most viewers their first chance to ever see the film in its proper widescreen aspect ratio. Going even further, Vinegar Syndrome gave the film a Blu-ray/DVD release that included the full-length feature GRETTA (parts of which appear in NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR) as a bonus. NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR also marked Vinegar Syndrome’s first foray into releases other than video with a limited edition 7” single of two songs from the film’s soundtrack co-produced by music label NoVisible Scars. The film was also released as a special limited edition big box VHS at the Cinema Wasteland convention in October 2013, a co-production with Massacre Video.



Vinegar Syndrome had been releasing a wide variety of films through their Drive-In Collection line of double feature DVDs, but they eventually decided to brand the releases of hardcore films separately. The Peekarama line of adult double feature discs was launched in January of 2014, with a disc that served as a clear statement of intent: this line was going to represent the golden age of adult film honestly, and without concern for what might be considered “problematic” content.

In ABDUCTION OF AN AMERICAN PLAYGIRL (1975), two losers who want to get laid (played by Eric Edwards and Alan Marlowe) kidnap a woman (Darby Lloyd Rains) and take her to a house in the woods for a weekend of presumably nonconsensual antics, and if they can get a ransom for her, so much the better. The tables are turned when the kidnappee turns out to be an insatiable nymphomaniac whose appetite for sex puts both men to shame (and completely exhausts them).

WINTER HEAT (1976) concerns a group of criminals (led by Jamie Gillis) on the lam who happen upon a trio of young girls vacationing in a remote house. The situation quickly devolves into the criminals having their way with the women, who respond with varying levels of enthusiasm ranging from excitement to violent protest. Both films feature content that would horrify modern audiences, but they have completely different approaches and tones: ABDUCTION OF AN AMERICAN PLAYGIRL plays out like an extended Benny Hill skit, while WINTER HEAT has a dark, mean-spirited tone (even if it ends with the criminals being literally dominated by their female victims). This disc set the standard for what was to come with the Peekarama line, which has offered a great crash course in a wide variety of 70s and 80s adult cinema.



WAKEFIELD POOLE’S BIJOU (1972, dir. Wakefield Poole, DVD)

For all intents and purposes, Wakefield Poole invented the modern gay porn film. His film BOYS IN THE SAND (1971) was both groundbreaking and hugely successful. He followed it up with BIJOU, a film that took the concept of the adult film and married it to a surrealist sensibility that, like BOYS IN THE SAND, was critically acclaimed and very popular. In BIJOU, a construction worker witnesses a woman being run over by a car. He takes the woman’s purse and flees, and later finds a card allowing access to a secret club where sexual fantasies are fulfilled. He goes to the club using her invitation and finds himself in a dreamlike place where fantasies become reality. Vinegar Syndrome had previously released Poole’s BIBLE! — a surreal adult take on three stories from the Bible — on DVD, but BIJOU marked the first gay hardcore film released by the label. And befitting the restoration and release of such an important film, Vinegar Syndrome packed the DVD with features including an audio commentary by Poole, interviews with Poole and author Linda Williams (Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible), unused audition footage shot by Poole, and the film’s theatrical trailer. Vinegar Syndrome later released BOYS IN THE SAND on DVD in a similarly packed collection with some of Poole’s early short films, and another disc of his films is in the works. BIJOU and the other “Films of Wakefield Poole” releases are more evidence of Vinegar Syndrome’s dedication to preserving the full spectrum of adult film history.



RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE (1982, dir. Mike Cartel, limited edition Blu-ray/DVD, DVD)

For their first limited edition Blu-ray release, Vinegar Syndrome turned to the films of Eric Jeffrey Haims for a double feature of THE JEKYLL AND HYDE PORTFOLIO (1971) and A CLOCKWORK BLUE (1972). While that release was interesting for various historical reasons (not least of which being the fact that THE JEKYLL AND HYDE PORTFOLIO was nearly lost, having only barely been released in the UK during the “video nasties” controversy of the early 1980s), the films were something of a chore to sit through. Their second limited Blu-ray, however, was a major find. Mike Cartel’s RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE (1982) is a bizarre film, but is also highly entertaining. The film was released on VHS in the 80s, but its distributor shot some gratuitous nude footage (on VHS tape, in contrast to the rest of the movie, which was shot on film) in order to bolster its commercial prospects. Two guys who run a worm ranch are out wandering in the desert when they see two other guys get out of a truck and bury a woman alive. They rescue her and take her back to the ranch and soon find themselves in the middle of a conflict between a gun-running all-female doomsday cult and the crime syndicate the women double-crossed.

RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE flirts with the type of outsider cinema associated with films like Doris Wishman’s A NIGHT TO DISMEMBER (1983), using black backgrounds to distort the audience’s sense of space and using editing in interesting and sometimes disorienting ways. RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE also has a sly sense of humor accompanying its dream logic, making it a truly unique experience. Vinegar Syndrome’s limited edition Blu-ray presented the film in 4k restored from the original 35mm negatives, giving this weird little movie a pristine digital presentation. RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE was also released as a standard DVD, but its limited edition release helped convince hardcore cinephiles that future limited edition Blu-rays from the company would be well worth the investment.



IN SEARCH OF BIGFOOT / CRY WILDERNESS (1975/1986, dir. Lawrence CrowleyWilliam Miller/Jay Cohen, DVD)

After The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, the first Vinegar Syndrome releases were those in their Drive-In Collection of double feature DVDs. The Drive-In Collection has been a fascinating look at the history of independent exploitation cinema, ranging from hardcore adult films of the 70s (later moved to the Peekarama line of releases) and late 50s/early 60s sexploitation to regional American horror and Filipino grindhouse films. Despite this all-encompassing scope, it was still something of a shock when Vinegar Syndrome announced the release of a Bigfoot movie Drive-In Collection disc featuring IN SEARCH OF BIGFOOT (1975) and CRY WILDERNESS (1986). IN SEARCH OF BIGFOOT was part of the 1970s Bigfoot movie craze that included such films as THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972), CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE (1976), THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT (1976), and many others. Like THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT, IN SEARCH OF BIGFOOT is presented as a documentary about the creature and a group of people searching for it in the Pacific Northwest. Unusual, but not terribly surprising given how popular the Bigfoot phenomenon was in the 70s.

The big surprise with this release was CRY WILDERNESS, an unusual regional children’s movie in which Bigfoot summons a young boy named Paul away from the private school where he lives to help his father Will, a park ranger who has been tasked with capturing an escaped tiger roaming the forest. It’s a weird little movie shot in Northern California and directed by Jay Cohen, who directed the bizarre frame story in NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR. With the release of this family-friendly Bigfoot movie, Vinegar Syndrome made it known that no corner of independent film history would go unexplored.



CRY FOR CINDY / TOUCH ME / AN ACT OF CONFESSION (1976/1971, dir. Anthony Spinelli, DVD)

As mentioned before, Vinegar Syndrome stays in regular contact with their fan base through their Facebook page. When the plans for the Anthony Spinelli Peekarama release of CRY FOR CINDY (1976) and TOUCH ME (1971) were in the works, the company put a question to their fans: should they release a cut version of Spinelli’s notorious nunsploitation porn AN ACT OF CONFESSION (1971), or wait to see if an uncut version may surface? This inspired some lively debate, but something like a general consensus emerged. Considering that it is highly unlikely an uncut print of the film has survived, many fans believed it would be better to have some version of the film available than none.

And so Vinegar Syndrome added AN ACT OF CONFESSION to the set, which expanded the release to two discs. They also added the softcore version of CRY FOR CINDY to the release at the last minute. The DVD case artwork doesn’t even mention the softcore cut of CRY FOR CINDY at all, but there is a disclaimer at the start of the film that explains Vinegar Sydrome had “a beat up 35mm print, extra space on disc #2 and some free time on a weekend.” They apparently did some minor color work but mostly present the film as it was scanned, giving tech/AV geeks a fascinating look at what the company does when they do full restorations on features and not just straight scans. The resulting set is one of the company’s best releases, offering two great Spinelli hardcore features, a peek behind the scenes into the scanning and restoration process, and a chance to finally see a decent quality version of a virtually lost classic of the era.



RAW FORCE (1981, dir. Ed Murphy, Blu-ray/DVD)

Like NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR, RAW FORCE was available on home video before Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release. Unlike that film, though, RAW FORCE was only available in a nearly unwatchable transfer from a badly damaged VHS copy. Getting a new high-definition transfer of RAW FORCE was hugely satisfying for paracinema fans who had been eagerly awaiting a new release of the film. RAW FORCE’s reputation as a lost classic had been growing since a battered 35mm print of the film (which, legend has it, was rescued from a dumpster) had screened at the 2009 Exhumed Films Horrorthon in Philadelphia. That screening introduced many new fans to this bizarre horror/martial arts/comedy in which some martial arts experts on a vacation cruise stumble upon a human trafficking ring that supplies nubile young women to the creepy monks on Warrior’s Island, where disgraced martial arts masters are doomed to wander forever in living death.

Shot in the Phillippines and starring Cameron Mitchell and Vic Diaz, RAW FORCE comes by its reputation honestly. Vinegar Syndrome restored the film from its original 35mm negative, and the difference between the awful previous VHS-transferred DVD and the new high-definition Blu-ray is truly astonishing. RAW FORCE stands as one of the most purely entertaining films Vinegar Syndrome has released to date, and it was great fun seeing it on the big screen projected from this fantastic restoration.

[For more, check out Jon Abrams on RAW FORCE.]



MURDER ON THE EMERALD SEAS (1973, dir. Alan Ormsby, limited edition DVD)

In June of 2014, Philadelphia-based Exhumed Films held their first Forgotten Film Festival. At this show, they screened five films that had never seen home video release in the States, including two films previously thought to be completely lost. One of these was MURDER ON THE EMERALD SEAS, the directorial debut of Alan Ormsby, who is probably best known as the co-writer and star of Bob Clark’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS. Alternately titled THE ARTISTS AND MODELS BALL and THE AC/DC CAPER, MURDER ON THE EMERALD SEAS is an exceptionally silly comedy/murder mystery in which a police detective is enlisted to dress as a woman and enter the annual Artists and Models Ball held on the cruise ship The Emerald Seas in order to track down the killer who has been murdering former winners of the pageant. There is no shortage of wacky hijinks and goofy ragtime music, and the humor throughout the film is broad enough that an out-of-nowhere cameo by Henny Youngman does not feel out of place at all. The print of the film screened at the Forgotten Film Festival was in shockingly good condition; despite a few instances of heavy water damage, it looked almost brand new.

Vinegar Syndrome gave the film a surprise limited DVD release (transferred from the print screened at the Forgotten Film Festival) at the Cinema Wasteland convention in October of 2014, and gave it away through their web store to fans who purchased one of their monthly bundle packs. This marked the first time MURDER ON THE EMERALD SEAS was ever released on home video in any form. Vinegar Syndrome recently announced another similar limited edition release for John Hayes’s 1969 Nazisploitation film THE CUT-THROATS (available at conventions and free with purchase of their May and June bundle packs), so hopefully they will continue to release such oddities on limited edition physical media in the future as well as making them available on Exploitation.tv.





— Jason Coffman.



Jason Coffman
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