Building History from Cinematic Trash

At The Vinegar Syndrome

Screenshot: The Vinegar Syndrome

Brandon Upson spends his days watching some of the world’s most obscure schlocky films. As a devotee of the low-rent and sensationalist exploitation film genre, he’d probably do so regardless of circumstances. But it’s also his job. Upson is currently the lead film restorer for the Vinegar Syndrome, a tiny company that has over the past five years amassed crates upon crates of rare, forgotten, and often literally crumbling low-end b-movies in a nondescript office in Bridgeport, Connecticut, with the aim of preserving them all, and distributing some to a wider audience.

This might seem like a meaningless pursuit. Some of these flicks were forgotten, explained Upson, in part because their makers thought they were pure crap. “A lot of them say, ‘you mean you’re actually interested in this?’” he recalled of a common refrain from incredulous rights owners he has reached out to. To an extent, the Vinegar Syndrome team does seem to run on pure fanboy zeal. But the team’s work is universally beneficial. Many exploitation flicks have more to offer than just the blood and boobs they used to sell tickets back in the day. Some are actually trenchant social commentary; all are historical items that speak to the values and conversations of often ignored social spaces. It’s hard to probe the true depths and impact of these films without a robust historical archive.

Unfortunately, explained Upson, most of these films were produced before film archiving and preservation started to take off, initially in the ’70s but only with vigor in the late ’80s. To this day, not many preservationists want to touch exploitation films, deeming them too low-value or controversial; even academia didn’t cop on to the messaging and unique delivery potential of the genre in any meaningful way until the late 90s. Some old copies were left to rot in warm, damp spaces — literally rot in a process of decay that lent Vinegar Syndrome its name. Others, lamented Upson, “they’d throw in dumpsters or — and this really happened — throw them into the ocean. Literally, they’d just throw them into a dump truck [toss them off a ledge] and drown them.”

Exploitation film is, at its definitional core, a cutthroat pursuit of uber-capitalists, churning out cheap movies quickly to exploit some zeitgeisty trend or controversy. It developed as early as the 1920s, but reached its zenith from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, an era of loosening censorship and declining theatre attendance. Reveling in the freedom to pursue and keen to the marketability of mankind’s most prurient interests, genre filmmakers create a slew of newly minted subgenres, like blacksploitation (think 1975’s Dolemite in which local cops get a black pimp, played by a comedian, out of jail to take down a local gangster with his band of martial arts-proficient prostitutes), Nazisploitation (think 1977’s Last Orgy of the Third Reich, an hour and a half of hardcore sadism and what is essentially rape porn set in a death camp), and rape and revenge fantasies (think 1972’s The Last House on the Left, in which psychos abduct two teenage girls, brutally raping and murdering them, then are in turn brutally killed by the girls’ family members who learn of their fate). But they almost all indulged heavily in egregious sex and violence.

Quite a few of the resultant pictures had little to no redeeming value, like 1975’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, which used Nazi concentration camps as a backdrop for unforgivable sadism and soft-core pornography. (That film, developed oddly enough in part by Ivan Reitman of Ghostbusters fame, actually spawned several ever more inane and grueling sequels.) However, many leveraged their expendability into social commentary. “Producers would probably say something like, ‘it’s got to have a kill scene, it’s got to have a sex scene… and I need it by this day and you have this budget,’” explained Upson, “‘otherwise do whatever you want with the story.’ And that’s when you would have these directors or writers doing politically motivated things with it as well.” To wit, Dolemite, for all its absurdity, made some salient comments about institutional racism. Even the nearly unwatchably gratuitous The Last House on the Left, which was actually the directorial debut of the recently deceased horror film icon Wes Craven, was actually (Craven admitted towards the end of his life), twisted meta commentary on the abstraction of violence in the Vietnam War era, forcing people looking for the cheap thrills of a murder-and-rape flick to confront what Craven saw as the true brutality and viscerality of human violence.

Genre film in general has often discreetly carried social commentary, hiding radical or controversial ideas under the veneer of a common and digestible narrative framework or set of expected audience gratifiers. High Noon brought anti-McCarthyism to audiences at the height of the Red Scare in 1952 via Western tropes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both the 1956 and 1978 iterations) followed an established sci-fi trend of commenting on Cold War paranoia, and Night of the Living Dead put horror into dialogue with anti-Vietnam War rhetoric in 1968. But exploitation had special abilities — namely, its moral abandon and embrace of exaggeration and depravity. It allowed creatives to dig deeper for starker gut punches or more direct and at times alienating critiques than mainstream film could offer up to mass and more reserved audiences: On the gut punch side, for example, John Waters’ 1972 Pink Flamingos far beyond any rational boundary of transgressive humor as weirdoes duke it out for the title of world’s grossest person. And on the withering, tangible social critique side, 1982’s Slumber Party Massacre gives a psychopathic man a drill — a starkly obvious symbol of toxic machismo — and lets him express the horrors of that mindset on a house full of young girls before he meets his just fate.

Even at the time, these films had the power to spark dialogue, both in the Grindhouse theatre space and beyond. They also slowly reshaped mainstream film, birthing accepted genres from slasher horror films like 2005’s blood-soaked Hostel, itself director Eli Roth’s overplayed attempt at punishing bro-y American ignorance via torture porn, to sexy-drenched teenage romp comedies like 1999’s American Pie and its spiraling, dumb franchise, not to mention inspiring the “mockbuster” craze that bedevils so many hopeful Netflix users these days. But these days, old exploitation joints can take on a new light; their immediate titillating qualities may have eroded due to changes in social obsessions and developments in filmmaking techniques, but their messages and other stylistic and artistic merits remain. This has allowed some, like 1932’s carnival sideshow-starring horror film Freaks, to be redefined as works of art or classics. Even those that didn’t get canonized wound up serving as crisp memories of how ideas were once framed, and sometimes-potent reorientations of those ideas for those who aren’t familiar with their histories or vintage; even at their silliest, blacksploitation films especially speak to a degree, intentionally or incidnetally, about race as seen through the eyes of more diverse and creatively free crews and casts than Hollywood could offer up in the ’70s. “It’s almost like an archaeological dig, where you see these new ideas that are actually 30 years old” put on unexpected display, says Upson.

As Upson has learned, there was no guarantee that the exploitation films that survived would be the most valuable, influential, or widely known. The end result being a highly fractured and fractional archive. (“Exploitation film from the ’70s to at least the early ’90s,” argued Upson, “other than silent films, [is the] genre [that] has the most lost films.”) What archive did exist was long functionally scattered amongst small, fiercely independent collectors as well. That’s a problem for anyone trying to build a cogent story about the true contours and full scope and impact of the exploitation genre as a serious piece of socio-cultural history. You can build narrative, draw meaningful insight, from a robust and central archive. A scattering of items just presents interesting case studies and suggests a story; it offers the ability to wax poetic about a medium’s potential and build hypotheses on its value and impact, but nothing more.

That’s where the obsessive fanboys at Vinegar Syndrome come in. From the very beginning, they focused on tracking down lost and forgotten exploitation films and saving them from decay via digital restorations and back-ups. While they make some cash by re-releasing films (and they’ve far exceeded their expectations on how many they’d put out, with dozens upon dozens on offer through their company store), Upson says they’ll preserve anything regardless of its distribution value. They’ve acquired thousands of exploitation films, as well as old industrial and educational reels. Their devotion to the genre, talent as archivists, and success at scouting and acquainting other aficionados with hidden jewels has earned them a high degree of respect in the exploitation collector community and also substantial visibility beyond that insular world. “People are coming to us now and saying, ‘I know you’re looking for films and I think I have [something] that’d be good for you,’” explained Upson.

At least according to Upson, the Vinegar Syndrome team isn’t that interested in using the uniquely complete and concentrated archive they’re creating for their own academic dissection. Upson says he’s learned a lot about the motivations of filmmakers by reaching out to rights owners; he’s been especially surprised by how many didn’t even recognize the artistry or social commentary someone on their crew had slipped into their works. Any insights that come out of their joyful packrat ways is an appreciated bonus, but incidental, though.

Even if they are not academics, they are still potent distributors. The team has collaborated with film programmers at festivals and theatres across the country to put some of their finds back on the silver screen. They also successfully crowd-funded, a Netflix equivalent subscription service putting high-resolution streaming copies of hundreds of items from their catalogue (and growing) at the fingertips of anyone in the world. Naturally, the Vinegar Syndrome team’s work serves existing genre fans above all others. But it also offers researchers easy access to a new and potent historical resource and promotes the visibility of the genre to academics and amateur historians who might never have thought to dip their toes into it before.

“The fact that people really seem to like [the films we find] and are interested more and more in [the exploitation genre and] what we’re putting out is awesome and it helps,” said Upson. But for all his nonchalance about the exposure and impact his work has achieved of late, this may be the coolest thing about this strange labor of love. It’s passionate archival work by another name. It’s creating the access and outreach modern society needs to better understand and draw upon the historic and still potent value of the exploitation genre. Whether at its obsessive archivists’ hands or not, the Vinegar Syndrome collection will leave a mark. One hopes it’s as senselessly bold, raw, and ultimately cosmically meaningful as the mark left by the exploitation genre itself.