Deafula (1975) (part 1 of 10)
Before launching into a recap, I usually like to give readers some preparation for what they’re about to read. A little background information on the movie, the historical perspective about the times in which it was made, a general overview of the production, etc. But in this case, I’m half-tempted to just chuck the whole intro. In some ways, all you really need to know about this movie is that it’s called Deafula, it’s about a deaf vampire, it’s performed entirely in sign language, and yes, it really exists.
This might be the weirdest film I’ve ever seen, right up there with Blood Freak—and that was a film about a guy who does too much heroin and turns into a turkey monster, and then is healed through the power of prayer. (Strangely, Deafula has the same pro-religion, anti-drug message amid all the blood and gore and nuttiness.) It’s certainly in my Top Five, as far as weirdness goes. So David Lynch, if you’re reading this: watch Deafula and weep. Well, everybody watching this movie will weep, but that’s beside the point.
Deafula is the brainchild of writer, director, and lead actor Peter Wechsberg (who’s sometimes credited as “Peter Wolf”, not to be confused with the lead singer of the J. Geils Band). At the time, Wechsberg was a videographer and actor who had recently toured with the National Theatre of the Deaf, and had produced a San Francisco newscast for the deaf and hard of hearing. In 1974, Wechsberg decided to break out into filmmaking, and so begat Deafula, filmed that year in and around Portland, Oregon.
I really don’t want to knock the guy, because from what I’ve read, it sounds like he’s overcome a lot to carve out a decent career in the industry. (These days, it seems he’s spending all of his time behind the camera, at a soundstage he owns himself.) I especially don’t want to make too much fun of the guy, because it turns out he does have an online presence (which I’ll talk more about later) and there’s a chance he might read this recap. Certainly, there’s more chance Wechsberg will read this than Michael Bay will read the thrashing this site gave Armageddon.
But even with all that in mind, there’s just no getting around it: Deafula is an indescribably demented film. As you read through this recap, you’ll probably think I made up at least half of these scenes. Trust me, I don’t nearly have enough of a twisted imagination for that.
Undoubtedly, the most bizarre aspect of this film is that the dialogue—every single word—is performed in sign language. There’s also a dubbed-in vocal track providing a literal (way too literal) translation for hearing audiences. As you might expect, this vocal track is as unintentionally hilarious as any poorly-dubbed martial arts film.
And guess what? Wechsberg and Co. actually had the gall to declare this some kind of amazing innovation, and give it its own name: “SignScope”. As a gimmick to get people into movie theaters, it ranks well below Percepto, Sensurround, Illusion-O, and just a smidgen above Smell-O-Vision. Yeah, it’s that lame. (Though, the dubbed sign language gimmick looks a little less crazy when you take into account Wechsberg’s time with the National Theatre of the Deaf, which employs a similar device in its stage productions.)
On top of that, the direction and editing are dreadful. Every now and then, there will be an interesting setup or camera angle, but for the most part, Deafula looks and sounds like an overlong student film (especially considering that it’s in black and white). In fact, I originally thought it was a student film, but no. This thing actually played in theaters.
Gary Holstrom, one of the producers of Deafula, recently gave an interview about the struggles they faced in getting deaf audiences to come see the movie. And in the interview, he claims that Deafula was meant as a “light comedy”. Unfortunately, the movie is far too bizarre and off-kilter to be funny in an intentional way. (Some movie posters exist where the film is called Young Deafula, indicating an attempt to position it as a horror spoof in the vein of the then-recent hit Young Frankenstein. But this, too, smacks of the filmmakers trying to sell the movie as a comedy after the fact.)
Holstrom also insists that deaf audiences got the jokes, but hearing audiences didn’t. I’m torn as to whether or not I really believe this. Yes, at least 50% of humor is in the timing and in the delivery. I mean, you could take some of Chris Rock’s funniest material, and hand it over to Ryan Seacrest, and I doubt you would even laugh once. Perhaps this is the case with Deafula. As someone completely unfamiliar with sign language, maybe I’m just missing out on the delivery. Maybe this stuff kills when you know ASL.
All I know is, those of us who can hear are left with a strange, misshapen plot that makes absolutely no sense. The idea of making a movie entirely in sign language is certainly not terrible. Hell, even the idea of a movie about a deaf vampire could work in the right hands, so to speak. The problem here is the script (reportedly made up as they went along), which is unbelievably confusing, random, and nonsensical.
I’m about to do something I’ve never done before, and apologize in advance to the filmmakers, if any of them happen to read this. I only do this because every single frame of this movie screams out labor of love. I realize Deafula was made primarily to show the world something it had never seen before: a film with a deaf protagonist. And I fully comprehend the staggering amount of work that must have gone into producing an independent film (especially back in 1975) and getting it booked in theaters. I’m sure it took an incredible amount of balls, perseverance, and luck, and that’s the case even for films directed at hearing audiences. I can’t even imagine how they sold a single person on a movie about a deaf vampire, much less, as Holstrom claims, 500 different venues.
But they really, really should have poured their hearts and souls into a script that actually made sense. If you want to be a success at the box office, in general, you should probably make a film that doesn’t immediately convince people you are actually insane. If they were indeed trying to make a horror spoof—which I sincerely doubt—they missed the mark by a significant distance. Deafula doesn’t work as horror, it doesn’t work as comedy, it doesn’t work as drama. It’s simply one of the craziest films ever made.
Prior to the film, there’s a fancy title card informing us that this film is in “SignScope”. Along with the card comes this spoken disclaimer, delivered by a bored male voice:
Okay, unique grammar, agreed. But why does he have to add “modern” English, as if sign language is a skill passed down from the ancients? And as far as providing “as literal a voice track as possible”, boy, they aren’t kidding about that. You’ll find out for yourself soon enough.
The movie opens on a slow pan around the urban landscape of Portland, while a solitary pianist noodles around on his instrument. I’m suspecting the piano player is deaf, too, by the completely out of tune notes he plays here.
And I’ve got to stop and mention the opening credits, because they’re remarkably entertaining in and of themselves. Our star/writer/director Peter Wechsberg is listed as playing “Deafula and Steve Adams”. Wait, the vampire goes by Steve during the day? What, he couldn’t make the commitment to being a Boris or a Vladimir?
Also in this film are characters like “Minister (Deafula’s Father)”, “Detective”, “Assistant Detective”, “Mother of Deafula”, “Young Amy”, “Old Amy”, “Zork (Amy’s Servant)”, and “Dracula”. Wait, there’s a Dracula as well as a Deafula in this movie? I don’t know about you, but I’m salivating at the prospect of what kind of insane situations we’ll witness, just based on the credits alone.
The slow pan across the city takes us indoors, and the camera rests on a hand on a door frame. A shaggy guy with long hair and a beard emerges from a public restroom, wiping an unknown substance from his mouth. Okay, coming out of a public restroom, and wiping his mouth. Not really a good sign. And I half expected them to cut inside the restroom and show Senator Larry Craig in one of the stalls, but no. Instead, another guy with hippie hair is propped up against the sink, and looking quite dead, with blood trickling down from his neck.
So, I’m going to take a stab at this, and say that this is our title character, Deafula—or rather, his civilian identity of Steve Adams—and he just finished having some poor guy as a mid-afternoon snack. Yes, it is clearly daylight outside, but let’s not get tripped up on that kind of thing just yet. There will be many, many opportunities later to marvel at how far this “vampire” deviates from folklore.
Just out of curiosity, does the regular, non-deaf Dracula feast on the blood of other dudes? I always thought the Count only went after nubile young females. This one seems slightly gay to me. Unfortunately, thanks to forum member snicks, I learned the name “Gayracula” is already taken.