Mining THE ARCHIVE: Exploring Vinegar Syndrome’s New Brick and Mortar Store [+ Interview With Brandon Upson and James Neurath of Vinegar Syndrome]

 

In the seaport city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, nestled unassumingly in a strip of buildings on an ordinary stretch of road, you’ll find The Archive. It’s a nondescript storefront in an ordinary location, unremarkable from the outside. Open the door, however, and you’ll enter a genre film wonderland.

The Archive is a brand-new movie, music and culture shop from the team behind Vinegar Syndrome, film restoration and distribution company and stalwart champions of cult and exploitation home video. This past weekend, they celebrated the store’s soft opening, and I was on-hand to check it out.

Photo courtesy of The Archive

The moment you walk through the door, it’s clear you’re in a special place. The entire atmosphere of the space is charged with a passionate love of film, from the merchandise and décor, to the Vinegar Syndrome team’s affable, easy-going attitudes and eagerness to discuss all things film, to the very concept of the store as a shrine to celluloid.

The Archive is filled wall-to-wall with a treasure trove of film merchandise and memorabilia, and what space isn’t occupied by well-stocked shelves is plastered with gorgeous film posters (among them a Demonoid print by Vinegar Syndrome cover artist and friend of Cinepunx, Chris Garofalo!), various film accouterments re-purposed for decoration, and other curios. Scrutinize the shelves, and you’ll find plenty of Vinegar Syndrome releases, as well as titles from other familiar genre companies: Arrow, Severin Films, Massacre Video, Philly’s own Garagehouse Pictures, and Drafthouse Films, to name a few. Genre fans will have a field day picking through this selection, with no shortage of variety on offer, and in multiple formats—everything from Blu-ray and DVD to VHS and LaserDisc are represented. I even held a Betamax copy of Liquid Sky in my hands, desperately attempting to rationalize buying it when I have no Betamax player. (eBay, here I come?)

The excitement and diversity of product doesn’t stop at home video, however. Another appealing draw for the store is their vinyl supply, which includes a staggeringly extensive and eclectic original soundtrack selection. It may very well be the best I’ve seen in my many years of record collecting in the Northeast. Flipping through the racks yields a significant assemblage of fan favorite labels (Death Waltz/Mondo, Waxwork, One Way Static and more) as well as several stalls packed with every conceivable type of soundtrack, from the mainstream, well-loved fare of Broadway musicals to the impossibly obscure (think soundtracks to films that never even saw release) and many lovingly-preserved original pressings. Looking for a first press of the Phantasm OST? Is there a large, Carpenter-shaped hole in your record collection? At The Archive, collector dreams come true.

 

 

Of course, all that vinyl requires something to spin it on, and The Archive has this covered as well. There’s a number of brand-new, quality turntables in stock, with plans to offer more audio equipment in the future. For the hardcore cinephiles, they’re planning on expanding their and film equipment stock as well in the months to come, with some 16mm projectors among the items they hope to secure.

Venturing out of the main room and into a lounge area in the back, a wall of free-play pinball and arcade games, an awe-inspiring collection of original one sheets and subway posters (sale prices TBD) and various t-shirts and tote bags await, including some nifty Vinegar Syndrome swag.

 

In my initial, fevered deep dig of the premises, I withdrew fully into mad collector mode, oblivious to much of the goings-on around me. Once I accumulated a hefty stack of records and various other odds and ends, I allowed myself some breathing room to fully take in the environment, and I was heartened by what I saw. For all the amazing pop-culture curios and underground oddities surrounding me at every turn, what struck me most was the obvious joy radiating from the other customers browsing the store, something immediately evident once I fully turned my attention outward. The room buzzed with the low hum of excited chatter, and everywhere I looked, I found another happy patron announcing their glee at a title they spotted on the shelves, or conferring with their friends about what their next purchase should be; folks laughing it up shooting ghosts and vampires in an arcade game, and flipping out over Vinegar Syndrome tote bags. At The Archive, Vinegar Syndrome have distilled the magic and wonder that film inspires, and are doing something truly beautiful with this store, reaching out to their audience and fostering a community and network for film lovers to connect with each other and celebrate their interests.

This is something I touched on briefly when I had a chance to sit down for a quick chat with two members of the Vinegar Syndrome team, operations coordinator and lead restoration artist Brandon Upson, and James Neurath, archivist manager and self-described Jack-of-All-Trades. We discussed Vinegar Syndrome as a company, the restoration process, The Archive and more.

Vinegar Syndrome’s Brandon Upson

 

Interview has been edited for clarity.

First off, I’d like to talk a little bit about Vinegar Syndrome as a label. The titles you release seem very carefully considered and curated. What criteria determines which films you choose to release?

James Neurath: There’s so many things. It has to be a film we can license, it has to have the right elements. It has to be something that fits into our years [Vinegar Syndrome primarily release films made from the 1960s though the 1980s], it has to be something we know our customers will be interested in. It’s really hard to find the specific kind of movie we’re going to put out.

Brandon Upson: Also, if it’s a film that’s part of an archive of films…we’ve acquired a few archives where it’s 100 or 200 films, and in some cases it’s culling through each film and if we get something where it’s the right situation and it looks easy to get a license on it, then that’s great, but if it’s too difficult…there’s a couple films where multiple people think they owned it each.

JN: We worked on a film where five different people said they owned it, and we had to figure out exactly who owned it.

BU: If that’s the case, we want to put the film out but nobody wants to get sued, either. It’s hard managing it, but we figure it out.

On that note, the research and investigation process for acquiring film rights strikes me as being ultimately fulfilling, but also very difficult and tedious.

JN: Our director of acquisitions Joe Rubin is really the pro at that.

BU: He’s almost like a savant. He knows every film, who owns it, who has the negatives.

JN: The X-rated stuff, especially.

BU: A lot of X-rated stuff is lost. It’s hard to find those—the film, and the license….it takes a lot of time.

JN: And with exploitation film in general, besides silent film, it’s the next genre that’s most lost to America [in terms of the availability of film elements].

I know Vinegar Syndrome doesn’t utilize resources like grain and noise reduction tools, presumably in the interests of preserving how the films originally looked when they screened in theaters. How important is this facet of the preservation process to you?

BU: These films have a certain grain structure to them and you want to preserve it. Even major studios unfortunately take DNR to the extreme. Stuff like digital noise reduction, it’s a tool, you’re not supposed to use it for grain reduction. You’re not supposed to reduce grain at all. Sometimes you have digital noise, which you want to take out if there were actual digital problems attaching to the film that shouldn’t be there, that’s when you want to take out the digital noise. But you don’t want to remove film grain at all. We like to preserve these films as much as possible, how they looked—

JN: How the director wanted it to look.

BU: And the cinematographer, too. It’s been good. So far everyone we’ve worked with, they’ve seen it and they loved it, as far as the crews we worked with. [For example] the cinematographer will come in and say, “that looks exactly how I wanted it.”

Could you walk me through the restoration process? Just a high-level overview.

BU: We get the film, it’s licensed and ready to go, but we still have to actually see what the film is. Sometimes, James will tell you, we get every kind of film possible, but sometimes we’ll only get a print of it, or it’ll be a negative—a negative is the best case. If you get the negative you can do everything from that, but sometimes you can only get a print of it.

JN: It could be the last print in the whole world.

BU: Yeah, which was the case with one of our releases, Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things. It was literally the only element anyone knew existed. So, we get that, we clean the film with our Ultrasonic cleaner, and we have an alcohol-based cleaner as well. We then scan it, and depending on the elements and depending on the project, we’ll scan it at either 2K or 4K. We’ll also scan the elements for the soundtrack as well, and then we bring it into the actual digital restoration tools. Our other co-owner of the company, Ryan Emerson, is our head colorist and director of production, so he goes through every film and does the visual color on it as well, and the color timing to bring all the colors back. We get a few films where it’s lost the color and is now magenta or as red as can be, but with the digital tools, we’re able to rescue the color out of the films as well.

JN: A couple of those porns we did never had anything struck from them, so they were literally shot and never touched again. So they looked pretty perfect.

[at this point, James had to leave to attend to some business matters and we said our goodbyes]

I know this is a tricky one to talk about, but are there any upcoming releases you’re particularly excited about? Anything you’d consider a “dream project” you’d love to happen?

BU: Not even us, necessarily, but I hope someone can release a good version of Ken Russell’s The Devils.

Oh, tell me about it. That one’s at the very top of my list as well.

It’s been touring a lot, and re-watching the film, it’s nothing crazy that hasn’t been done since then. I’ve seen stuff with much more extreme subject matter come out, get released, get full restoration, and it’s still not clear what the actual problem is. You hear different stories about why it’s not coming out and it’s so bizarre.

It doesn’t make sense!

It’s definitely a case where the elements are out there, they could cull them. Some people found the extended footage, too.

As far as Vinegar Syndrome is concerned, we just got in a major one. I can’t really talk about it, but keep an eye out in November. There’s gonna be some crazy horror films coming out, and one that a lot of people have been requesting too.

Oh man, I look forward to it! Shifting gears a bit, when and how did you conceive of the idea to open a store, and what are your hopes for it?

Well, a lot of people requested to come down and see the facility and we’re not really built for that or for tours, necessarily. When clients come in, we show them what we do and the film archive, but we really can’t have too many people inside. The film archive itself is a climate-controlled environment. You want to keep it nice and cool, and you also want to make sure there’s not too many people in there handling it. But, people want to come and buy our releases, too, and we had the online store, but other than that we didn’t really have anything set up. So we thought, “OK, let’s make a video store,” and that grew to, “Oh, let’s do a record store, too!” We do have a big selection of soundtracks. We have our video section, we have arcade machines. We also wanted to feature things you don’t really find in stores around here, or in a lot of the major stores in general. You won’t find too many major studio titles here, but plenty of genre. We just decided to open it and now we’re here, and so far, so good!

It’s a great idea, a great way to foster community between yourselves and the fans.

Yeah, that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to meet our customers, and it’s cool, because people travel far but we’re right off I-95, we’re right near the Bridgeport Ferry from Long Island, and we’re right near the train station, which is about a 90 minute train ride from Grand Central Station. So it’s very accessible.

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Adrianna Gober

Adrianna Gober is a Lehigh Valley-based writer and musician. She loves record collecting, comic books, and all things shlocky, campy and kitsch. She is a proud member of the Church of Ed Wood and her favorite Bowie b-side is "Crystal Japan."

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