No one can hear you scream

This is one of the rarest of all vampire films, which you see listed in a lot of movie guides but not many people have seen it. Most describe it as a version of the Dracula story performed in sign language, but I found it to be something quite different.

Writer/director Peter Wechsberg (billed as Peter Wolf) also stars as Steve Adams, a blonde, chubby and bearded minister’s son who is presently a theology student. Flashbacks show him as an anemic little boy who, finding that transfusions just don’t do the trick, takes to drinking puppy blood. Somehow he’s been able to sublimate his blood thirst, but reports of drained corpses all over town are making him a bit nervous.

A pair of detectives (Lee Darrel, with Dudley Hemstreet as the comic-relief Brit) are sometimes seen making investigations, but are having trouble making headway because the vampire theory won’t be taken seriously. It doesn’t help that they’re both a couple of screw-ups.

Meanwhile, Wechsberg takes a page from every episode of The Incredible Hulk, staging a scene in which Adams is chased in a parking garage by a gang of biker junkies. When they corner him, he turns into Deafula and kills them all.

Steve finally realizes he’s living a double life as a Jekyll & Hyde style vampire, and decides to investigate his past. His search eventually leads him to find and confront his real father, Count Dracula himself (Gary Holmstrom)!

Deafula, with its black & white photography (rare by that time) and regional setting (Portland, Oregon), has some of the pleasing low budget flavor of films like Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls. Wechsberg’s aim of making a film that could be enjoyed equally by deaf people like himself and others results in an oddball world in which everyone (deaf and non-deaf actors) uses sign language – a technique dubbed “Signscope”. The film was shot without sound, with a soundtrack dubbed in later. This brings hearing folks partially into a deaf world where all police cars have TTY attached to their radios. At one point, Steve visits a witch who is truly handicapped – not only is she a mute hunchback, but she has no hands!

There are a couple of factors that throw the movie off the rails, however. One is the slow pace. Another is Wechsberg’s preachy undertone, which comes to the forefront at the end. But by far the most laughable flaw is the fact that, when Steve becomes a vampire, he wears a ridiculous evening suit and cape, topped off with big nose / pointy ears makeup that makes him look like a papier-mâché Dracula puppet. 

Unless you’re deaf – or have a hearing impaired friend – you’ll probably have a tough time finding Deafula. Tapes seem to be available only through places like sign language schools and church film libraries (though some bootleggers have been able to get their hands on copies). Producer/actor Gary Holmstrom is currently president of Beaverton, Oregon’s Diversity Corporation.

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