3. A silent or dialogue-free film: Deafula (1975)
List Progress: 10/12 (+3)
So I am really, really stretching the definition of this category, but I want to include it and this is my list. The 1975 horror movie Deafula is not technically a silent film, but only because of an accommodation made for viewers like me. You see, Deafula is the first (and as far as I can find, only feature-length) film ever made and performed entirely in American Sign Language. Every single character speaks in ASL, and it is not commented on by the narrative or characters, but just a normal part of this film’s world. The accommodation is that the film is presented in the “Signscope format”, where the dialogue is translated into English by a voice-over track speaking as the characters are signing. In terms of historical merit, as a film in ASL directed by a deaf director and performed by a largely-deaf cast, Deafula is a wonderful landmark.
As a narrative film, it’s a schlocky horror flick from the 70’s that makes little to no sense. But it fails boldly, on its own terms, and must be respected for that.
Deafula follows Steve Adams, played by director Peter Wolf, who has had a rare blood disorder since birth that has required monthly blood transfusions from his preacher father, but also causes him to transform into his murderous vampire alter-ego Deafula (he is referred to as “Deafula” in dialogue exactly once, near the very end of the film, and man is it jarring). They play fast and loose with traditional vampire lore, as Deafula can safely walk in daylight and doesn’t mind crucifixes, but the mind control and blood drinking are still there to facilitate his mass murder. Two detectives, one of them a childhood friend of Steve’s, are set on getting to the bottom of this recent string of violent deaths, but they cannot see the monster lurking right under their noses.
This movie is very low budget and it shows; a servant character who cannot speak is apparently an amputee, even though there are clearly just tin cans stuck over the actor’s hands. The writing and story also needed more than a few extra passes, as important plot points are added well into the movie’s third act. Even the editing is uncomfortable, with shots given far, far too much time to breath. It all comes together into a strange slog with occasional diversions into ridiculousness and dressed in a thick layer of 70’s fashion.
If you are a fan of schlocky horror films of the past, this one should go on your list, and doubly so if you are interested in deaf culture and art made by deaf people themselves. But if you want a well-written, well-made film, Deafula is not for you.
Would I Recommend It: Oh hell yes. It wasn’t good, but I certainly had fun.
(Unfortunately, good luck finding it. I had to order the DVD from a vintage film site.)