I can often be heard saying, “Now I’ve seen it all” when I take in a particularly weird movie but the truth is, I haven’t even scratched the surface. I’ve devoted a big chunk of my life to watching fucked up movies but for every strange, Psychotronic flick I watch, there are a hundred more with even weirder themes and worse acting. However, with Deafula, I’m fairly certain that this is the real deal. I’ve never seen anything like it. Nothing. I’m also fairly certain that I’ll never see anything like it again.
Vampire movies are a dime a dozen. Over the years, every possible combination of plot elements has been done. It’s a real dead horse of a horror movie. Sometimes they make a Bram Stoker style movie but it’s usually a horrible mashup of Anne Rice themes and Blade with high flying Matrix style action and tragic but sexy characters wearing leather and latex like second skin. A real, original vampire movie is hard to come by and Deafula is one of them. I’m sometimes reminded of George Romero’s is-he-or-isn’t-he a vampire movie, Martin, but even Deafula stands apart from the crowd.
You see, Deafula is a movie with no spoken dialog. The entire movie is acted out in American sign language.
I’m not kidding.
Troubled theology student, Steve, son of a preacher has struggled with strange impulses to drink blood since he was a child. He does the best he can but even as an adult he can’t control it. We begin as he ponders the dead body of his most recent victim before taking a walk through a shabby neighborhood, remarking, in sign, that he wants to give everyone rainbows. When he’s accosted by a junkie biker and his bubbly, hippie girlfriend looking for cash, his alter-ego comes out. Steve is an ordinary blonde guy with a beard but when Deafula emerges, his appearance has changed. Steve has been replaced by a dark haired man with a huge Cyrano de Bergerac nose, cape and fangs. With the junkie biker under his thrall, he commands him to tie the girl to the bike and drive off a cliff, which he does.
Meanwhile, the worst cops you’ve ever seen are investigating the string of vampire murders. One cop looks for a rational explanation while the other, who looks like Rick Rubin and in spite of his American narration goes over and over the claim that he’s from England, home of the greatest detectives in the world, and that the killer is Dracula, whom he has personally faced down before and staked. If you’re not laughing yet, understand that these two Keystone Cops are played for chuckles. The British Van Helsing cop is constantly bungling his way through whatever scene he happens to be in, obsessively pursuing his Dracula theory. Their investigation is going nowhere.
Deafula, a black and white feature shot in 1975 by Steve/Deafula star, Peter Wechsberg is as strange as it sounds. His idea of making a movie that both hearing able and the deaf could enjoy is a well-meaning if misguided idea. It is precisely the sort of video novelty that I live to stumble across. I was expecting a movie completely without sound but there is actually an audio track that consists of the occasional soundtrack number and a vocal narration that speaks over the signing so that people who can’t read sign can follow along. Worse than the most awkward kung fu movie dubbing you’ve ever heard, the narration never attempts to put any sort of inflection or acting flavor on the dialog. It’s as if you’re listening to a man tell you what two deaf people are saying when they sign to each other in a flat tone, slowly so as not to get ahead of the signage.
Stylistically, the movie is all over the map. Sometimes it takes itself deadly serious and then wildly shifts gears to the zany cop scenes. Wechsberg also forgets some fundamentals of the vampire legend. In spite of the well-known vampire aversion to sunlight, Deafula lurks in broad daylight several times throughout the movie. Thankfully, going into Deafula, I wasn’t expecting a standout horror movie. I was expecting a completely insane one and while I did find such a thing, I also found a movie that occasionally shows promise with moody photography and the occasionally eerie setting as Deafula uses his mind powers to make people do his bidding.
While the movie stays on track for the first half, it tends to lose itself going into the second half and things cease to make any sense. Even the worst movies I’ve seen have had some sense of pacing but Deafula takes its sweet god damn time getting to the point. Plot points are punctuated with random Drac Attacks™ as Deafula infiltrates the bedrooms of beautiful women and kills them. There’s a meandering idea about visiting a friend of Steve’s dead mother who has some dark secret about Steve’s past but getting there is interrupted both by the death of Steve’s dad by heart attack and another broad daylight attack on two people making out in a forest. When the movie finally gets around to telling the story, Steve arrives at a house tended by an Igor type character with cans over his hands, limiting his ability to communicate in the movie’s world. Apparenty, the devil has his hands. Steve’s mother’s friend then fills him in on the dreadful truth about himself. Ordinarily, I’d stop here so at not to spoil anything, but what the hell?
Steve is the son of Dracula. He’s also the son of his father, the preacher. Somehow they occupy the same body. It’s never explained. It’s also never explained how he finds it, but Steve goes to Dracula’s house, unstakes him and demands to find his mother so he can resolve the duality in his life.
The narration features a male voice for male characters, a woman for females and a Dracula voice for Dracula. So while Drac is signing, a weak Lugosi impression comes on to tell you what he’s saying. I’m still laughing thinking of his overly dramatic signage and the ridiculous voice that slowly accompanies it.
How this movie has managed to avoid infiltrating greater cult circles is a mystery to me. The availability of the movie has probably been limited to sign language schools and community centers catering to the hearing impaired, but these sorts of market limitations never stopped The ABC of Sex Education For Trainables from getting out into tape trading circles. It is high weirdness like few movies, occasionally exhibiting the style of other low budget vampire movies from the era such as the aforementioned Martin, Jess Franco’s Female Vampire (aka Loves of Irina, Bare Breasted Countess, etc.) albeit without any of the constant nudity and explicit sex scenes or the strange, dreamlike films of Jean Rollin. I get the feeling that Peter Wechsberg never saw any of those movies, though. The end result is a lot more like Manos, The Hands of Fate than Rape of the Vampire.
Strictly for fans of psychotronic movies, Deafula is the rarest kind of video novelty.