Tuesday, August 4, 2009

This Movie Is Not For You

with Jenny Orosel

A Deafula review for hearies

I don’t remember the first time I heard of Deafula. Actually, I can’t remember a time I hadn’t. It would show up on lists of firsts in film, a list of movie gimmicks, of bizarre forgotten flicks you had to see. It gets a lot of attention for a movie that purposefully alienates most of the public.
Deafula came out in 1975 and was the first movie to get a theatrical release filmed entirely in American Sign Language (while there has been direct-to-video releases since then, to date it is the only one totally in ASL to hit mainstream theatres). It was made by a mostly deaf cast and crew for deaf audiences. Not ones to turn away the money from “hearies” tickets, a voiceover track was made to translate. In fact, the first thing you hear is this warning:
“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.”
On the secondary market, both the translated version and the soundless one can be found. Unless you are a “deafie” or fluent in ASL, I would not recommend getting the silent version. Yes, you get the general gist of what’s going on but, as long as it’s available, you might as well get the full effect.
Director/writer/star Peter Wolf-Wechsberg worked for a while with the National Theatre for the Deaf. His frustration that the troupe had started playing into the hearing world’s fascination with “flying hands” combined with his desire to see his own name on the marquee, so he left the troupe and went to work creating a film aimed specifically at deaf audiences
Deafula centers on Steve Adams. Despite being born with an unnamed blood disease which requires monthly transfusions, he lives life to the fullest. Steve is a theology student hoping to walk in the footsteps of his minister father. His best friend, the local detective, would rather seek Steve’s advice than that of his new partner. You would think Steve would be thrilled. But no. See, Steve’s mysterious disease isn’t being controlled by those transfusions and it leaves him hungry for fresh blood. When the hunger becomes unbearable, he transforms from mild-mannered Steve to the sinister blood-sucker, Deafula.
Most of the write-ups on Deafula focus on the novelty of “flying hands”. See, every character in the movie is deaf and speaks through sign. By not seeing past the gimmick, those reviewers are missing the rest of the picture—it’s not just the dialogue delivery used to create an alternate world for deaf audiences, but the entire society Wechsberg has made. Every character is deaf, yet the only one considered handicapped is the servant of the town witch (because of his wicked ways, his hands were removed and replaced with tin cans). Police cars come equipped with TTYs instead of radios. News broadcasts are entirely in sign. Like the warning at the beginning of the flick, these are reminders that this movie was not made for us.
Translating from ASL to English voice has its problems. First off is in the casting of the voice actors. One of the characters is a detective brought in from England to help solve the murders. He often proclaims he knows what he’s doing because “I’m from England. England has the best detectives!” Yet they couldn’t find a voice actor with a British accent? And there’s another problem with that same character. If you judge from his voiceover, he speaks in halting, broken English. Any humor from that flew over my head. After some research, though, I realized British Sign Language and American Sign are as different in their words and grammar as English and Spanish. With that knowledge, his struggles with language made perfect sense. Fret not, though, we have our own inside moment. During a shot of a beautiful afternoon sky, we hear a blood-curdling scream from off-screen. My only guess is they didn’t expect the hearing viewers to follow the subtle screen clues preceding where Deafula slowly stalked behind his victim.
Sadly, this movie falls into the same traps as many first films do. It tries to be amusingly funny, nail-biting frightening and philosophically melancholy all at once. While very ambitious, it leaves the tone uneven and jumbled. I wonder if Steve’s transformation to Deafula were meant to be part of the humor; in the blink of a half-second take-away shot, the casually dressed Steve suddenly wears a tuxedo and black cape, his hair is darker and slicked back, and his nose grows by about an inch. It’s hard to accept that humor, though, when it’s intercut with shots of Steve’s sadness and regret as he ponders over the bodies of his victims, or scenes of him walking down the street regretting that the children of the world exist in “dark cellars feeling only the coldness of rain” and how he wishes he could “give them a rainbow, string their hair with pearls…and a shaft of sun to light their world”.
And that’s a shame, because it’s easy to spend so much time trying to figure out the tone that a viewer might miss some really great stuff. Peter Wechsberg puts in a fantastic performance, using both his facial expressions and body language to convey the myriad of emotions felt by Steve as he battles his inner hunger. The cinematography is fantastic. Even the silliest of shots are gorgeously framed. Also, Deafula is a wholly different kind of vampire, one who has no problem walking the streets in daylight or keeping crosses close by (even kissing them at certain points). This is not just a rehashing of other people’s vampire lore but its own unique creation.
Unfortunately, this movie is only shown at the occasional festival or revival theatre. It has never been made available on the home video market. Rumors have floated around that a special edition DVD is in the works but, honestly, so much time has passed since the rumors started I have my doubts. As it stands, your only option is to seek out a copy from your favorite purveyor of “DVDs of questionable origins”. Is it worth it? I would say so, but unless you’re a deafie, be prepared to watch this movie as if from behind a pane of glass. You are an outsider in the world of Deafula.

--Jenny Oresel