Vinegar Syndrome: Saving Cinema’s Sordid Past

Vinegar syndrome is a phrase used to describe a process of film decomposition in which the celluloid breaks down chemically, resulting in a vinegary odor. It’s an extremely destructive process that has resulted in the loss of hundreds of older motion pictures.

There’s also a good kind of Vinegar Syndrome, one that works to combat the bad. This Vinegar Syndrome is based in a Bridgeport, Connecticut — a company that has made it its mission to restore, preserve and distribute horror, exploitation and other nontraditional motion pictures, many of which are on the verge of disappearing forever.

Vinegar Syndrome cover

Save the Movie

“Our mission is to treat even the most obscure and forgotten genre film as a unique piece of art and do our best to preserve its filmic qualities in a digital form,” says Vinegar Syndrome co-founder and director of production Ryan Emerson. “Discovering these dusty gems and performing a restoration that can recreate (as close as possible) an opening day theatrical experience in a home theater environment–that is our ultimate goal.”

Emerson came to Vinegar Syndrome with a lengthy background in film restoration. The company is different from others, he notes, in that it owns its own film scanning and digital restoration facility. “We are extremely hands on with our restorations and I think that shows through in our home video releases,” Emerson says. “We didn’t build our digital lab so we could save money; we built it to control the process.”

Vinegar Syndrome storefront in Bridgeport, Connecticut

Ryan Emerson in the Vinegar Syndrome storefront in Bridgeport, Connecticut

Best Sellers

Established in 2012, Vinegar Syndrome has to date scanned and restored more than 500 features, and released approximately 250 on Blu-ray and DVD. The most popular genres include horror, science fiction, exploitation, and vintage adult films from the 1970s and ‘80s. “The more mainstream horror titles and red carpet golden age erotica—titles like Madman, Jack Frost, Taboo and Sex World—are our bestsellers,” observes Emerson. “Some of our internal favorites like The Telephone Book, Pigs, Star Time and Runaway Nightmare may not be bestsellers, but they are extremely important to the soul of Vinegar Syndrome.”

The company does a brisk business through its website, but in 2017 decided to cater to local consumers by opening a brick and mortar store called The Archive at its Connecticut headquarters. The store started as an experiment, Emerson says, but proved an unqualified success. In addition to VS’s own line of DVD and Blu-Ray offerings, it stocks titles by other labels as well as an extensive selection of vinyl LPs.

Vinegar Syndrome restoration of Telephone Book

If Not Us, Then Who?

Multiple factors go into deciding whether a movie gets the VS treatment, but often, Emerson says, it boils down to ‘If not us, who?’ “If the question is difficult to answer, chances are we’ll release it,” Emerson reports. “Looking back through our catalogue, all the way back to our first release, The Lost Films of Hershell Gordon Lewis, I think you can see a nice through line connecting the whole of our collection. We really enjoy releasing the obscure oddities, regional rarities and underground gems, all while shining a light on some popular exploitation and horror classics.”

The restoration process can be complicated and time-consuming, sometimes taking longer than the film’s actual production. According to Emerson, the greatest challenge is often sourcing suitable film materials for scanning. Original film elements are always preferable, but if they are unavailable, Emerson and his team will track down the next generation of a film, either an interpositive or internegative.

Vinegar Syndrome

Frankenstein Strategies

“If pre-print materials aren’t available, worst-case scenario we use theatrical release prints,” Emerson says. “From a restoration and image clarity standpoint, theatrical prints are the most difficult to work with because we have to erase years of projector abuse and mishandling. Often, when dealing with release print restorations, we will create a Frankenstein version from multiple sources. Colorwise, this can get tricky, as we have to match different degrees of fade from one print to another.”

It’s not uncommon for Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration team to discard weeks of effort because better film elements have been located. “An average length film has around 120,000 individual frames,” Emerson notes. “We click through frame by frame on these projects, removing dust, dirt, scratches and any other kind of image defects as we try to breathe new life into the film.” Emerson says he’s most proud of Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration of Liquid Sky, Slava Tsukerman’s trippy 1982 sci-fi opus about tiny aliens in New York City. “It’s a film that has suffered for years in horrible looking editions, and we put an incredible amount of work into the restoration and color grading of our version,” Emerson says.

Because the proprietors of Vinegar Syndrome and their customers are diehard movie fans, the design and aesthetics of the company’s releases are tremendously important. “We try to use the original poster artwork if possible,” Emerson says. “Sometimes ‘of the era’ artwork does not exist or is of very shoddy quality. In such cases, for creating new cover artwork, we tend to work exclusively with designers and artists that are familiar with the films and are genre film fans themselves. We walk a fine line with newly commissioned artwork: on the one hand we want our covers to stand out in a crowd, and on the other hand, stylistically, the artwork needs to mesh with the film.”

Added Touches

In an effort to cater to the discerning film collector, certain Vinegar Syndrome titles are released with extras, such as the film’s original trailer or interviews with its stars or director. Special edition slipcovers have also proved very popular, Emerson says. The horror movie Jack Frost, for example, was released with a unique lenticular cover featuring the film’s titular killer snowman. “We received tremendous feedback about Jack Frost and The Undertaker, so we decided to kick it up a notch on our packaging,” Emerson observes.

The movies restored by Vinegar Syndrome and similar companies may not be Academy Award winners, but their preservation is important socially and historically, Emerson says. “With any film preservation project, it’s important to provide public access to the final work,” he explains. “Outside of a theatrical screening, home video is the best way for people to experience our restorations. I think that the work we are doing, and that of other like-minded companies, is vitally important to bringing these films back into the public sphere. Projects that involve recovering, restoring and releasing lost films are by far the most rewarding projects to work on.”

Check out Vinegar Syndrome’s latest releases here.

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