Shot in “SIGNSCOPE,” Deafula (Peter Wechsberg, 1975) begins with the following voice-over, “This motion picture was produced for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. Sign language is totally visual with a unique grammatical structure. Its interpretation into modern English would destroy much of the effect of this form of communication. With this in mind, we will provide as literal a voice track as possible to help you follow the story.”
A tale told in this manner has myriad implications. Initially, “signscope” is terrific gimmick, sure to garner attention. Thematically, the film proves accessible to a wide audience, as vampires are a firmly established fixture of the cinema. Additionally, shooting MOS saves on costly equipment and dampens cut-rate acting. Deafula appears to be a straightforward low budget black & white horror film. Things take an unusual turn when we see a minister (James D. Randall)-the protagonist’s father-preaching to his congregation. A languid voice-over accompanies the man of the cloth as he signs his sermon! Within a few minutes, the film’s music dies down and sound effects make themselves scarce. Apart from occasional voice-overs and snatches of music, the film runs for long stretches without sound.
The audience follows the progress of two detectives searching for the killer of twenty-odd people. Apparently, the case has garnered enough attention to merit the import of an expert from England (Dudley Hemstreet). His American partner (Lee Darrel) is nonplused by the bumbling Brit-even when the English super-sleuth relates the tale of driving a stake into the heart of Dracula (Gary Holstrom)! The English detective surmises that their prey is a vampire of similar stature. He often signs, “I know, I’m from England!” Apparently, he doesn’t know his job well enough...
Coincidentally, the American detective is an old friend of the preacher’s son, Steve (Weschberg). We learn early in the film that Steve can transform himself into a dark-haired, big-nosed bloodsucker! The vampire shows no prejudice or pattern in choosing his victims. For a while I thought that Deafula was killing off members of his father’s congregation. Nope, he merely feeds when the opportunity arises. Conveniently, the cops are always at the crime scene while the bodies are still warm.
It took a while for me to realize that Deafula wasn’t taking itself very seriously. Aside from Deafula’s prominent proboscis and an in depth conversation about eating peanuts with the shells on, it wasn’t until a “signer” with metal cans at the end of his arms instead of hands showed up that I knew Deafula was definitely made with comedy in mind!
More than the use of sign language, Wechsberg’s adept direction helps to elevate the film. Also credited as “Peter Wecksberg” and “Peter Wolf,” Wechsberg went on to act and direct in a few other films. He’s also spent a good deal of time on sets as a cinematographer or producer.
Deafula’s producer Gary Holstrom, took the time to speak to Cashiers du Cinemart about the making of this unique film.
Cashiers du Cinemart:How was Deafula conceived?
Gary Holstrom: Peter Wechsberg worked for me in a media center for a regional financial institution. His background up to that point was: filmmaker, TV personality (KRON-TV in SF) and National Theatre of the Deaf troupe member. He was hired to do videography for various film/video projects.
After about a year, he seemed dissatisfied with the work and I brought him in my office to talk. “What is it that you want?” I asked. “To see my name on a marquee,” was his response.
It took me about two weeks to chew on that, during which I looked for money sources to do a feature. Soon after, I quit my good-paying job to look for money. Peter followed.
It was quickly decided that a light-horror and light-comedy feature would be the best mix. We chose B&W because it best fit the mood of the film. Peter and a group of deaf folks wrote the script outline. An actual written script was composed after we had the film in the can. That scripta literal interpretation of the signwas used to provide the voice track. The music track was added during the final audio mix. The voice track was added to attract more hearing signers. The music track was added for both audience types.
We had our opening in January 1975 at Portland’s Broadway Theater.
CdC:Have you and Peter done any other film projects?
GH: No, not together. Peter has, however, done a couple of very low budget deaf films in 16mm. He has a film company near Los Angeles and does a lot of editing and shooting on hearing B-movies. We have talked many times about doing another but I am holding a great script and a group ready to move but it’s not one for sign language.
CdC:What were the reactions from deaf and hearing audiences to the film?
GH: You must understand that deaf folks do not go to the movies! We had quite a challenge in front of us just promoting a theatrical film. Furthermore, during production the deaf grapevine told us that Deafula was a Hollywood prank. After all, Hollywood has always used the hearing to play the deaf. Plus, who ever heard of a film done totally in sign language-no captions, no lip-reading required, and no lip movements. Needless to say, it was an uphill battle to prep the U.S. deaf population that this film was indeed going to happen and that it was done by a deaf actor and director.
Audience reactions were fascinating. Where we could arrange it, extra bass speakers were placed near the screen. Pump up that base and the deaf audience would scream with excitement. They could feel the suspense via vibration. The hearing didn’t understand. The vomit and “one liners” brought the deaf to loud laughter. The hearing folks had a different reaction. It was quite an experience.
CdC:What about Deafula’s big, honkin’ nose? What’s up with that?
GH: Light comedy. The deaf loved it, the hearing didn’t.
CdC:Have there been any other films that have employed Signscope?
GH: We started Signscope with the intent of producing features that would support the development of educational materials for deaf school. They lack so much basic information on life skills and dangers (drugs, alcohol, et cetera).
In retrospect, we were ten years too early. Even though we played in nearly 500 places around the US and Canada, we just were not able to make the money to pay off the debts, continue operations and put monies aside for material development. If we had waited and offered to sell Deafula on VHS (rather than 16mm through the late ’70s & ’80s), things might have been different.