Gritty urban horror-drama contemplates the sad life of a vampire wannabe
The Transfiguration (2017)
Directed by Michael O’Shae
Cast: Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine
Michael O’Shea’s savvy, self-conscious debut film, the microcosmic horror-drama The Transfiguration, will undoubtedly remind genre-astute viewers of other, more familiar films. Elements of Ana Lily Amirpour’s languid A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and George Romero’s gritty Martin, for example, percolate to the top of this stew of pop cultural references. The Transfiguration isn’t coy about its ancestry, either. A contemplative indie examination of the overworked vampire genre, the film willingly name-drops such films as Let the Right One In, Near Dark, Fright Night, Lost Boys, Nosferatu and Nadja. Maybe he’s just letting his C.V. spill out onto the screen, but it’s hard to argue O’Shea doesn’t know his history when it comes to vampire movies.
The Transfiguration takes us to the non-gentrified part of Brooklyn where troubled, African-American 14-year-old Milo (Eric Ruffin) lives in a run-down public housing complex with his older brother. Following a bloody encounter in a public restroom and a meeting with a school counselor in which Milo assures her he’s no longer hurting animals, just “thinking about it ... maybe,” audiences are assured that this kid has got some serious problems. He is, it turns out, thoroughly convinced that he’s a vampire. So sure is he of the conviction that he goes out once a month (keeping track on a calendar, even), in search of blood to drink. Shedding supernatural elements for stark realism, the film keeps us guessing: Is Milo really a vampire, or just a seriously screwed-up kid? In the end, it doesn’t really matter.
Milo believes he’s a vampire, and that’s enough. Of course, he can’t talk to anyone about it. He’s got no parents, no friends. And his brother seems awfully distant. So Milo spends his days watching YouTube videos about predators (one assumes for tips) and his nights consuming classic vampire films from his VHS collection. In a series of notebooks, he jots down the many “rules” for being a vampire—a confusing enterprise since most movies seem at odds with one another. Plus, Milo is clearly unaffected by things like sunlight and crosses and garlic. How’s a teenage vampire in Brooklyn supposed to figure this stuff out?
One day the lonely, obsessive teen crosses paths with a new neighbor. Sophie (Chloe Levine) is a slightly older girl, but equally troubled. She lives with her abusive grandfather, cuts herself with a razor blade on a regular basis and talks openly about suicide. Despite the fact that she’s Caucasian (and not a budding serial killer), she’s got a lot in common with Milo. Both have lost their parents and are floating through a world of confusion and pain. Naturally, they drift together. He takes her to see a screening of Nosferatu. She encourages him to read Twilight. (He refuses, saying it’s “not realistic.”) Chloe knows there’s something weird and off about Milo, but there’s something weird and off about her too—so she figures it’s just fine.
As he grows closer to Chloe—who’s damaged in a much more conventional way—you start to think maybe Milo will work things out for himself. Maybe that whole murder/bloodsucking thing was just a phase. Sadly for Milo, however, there’s nothing to work out. He’s a vampire who must kill to survive. So his feelings for Chloe only delay the inevitable.
Deep in its bones, The Transfiguration is a simple coming-of-age story crossed with a morbid psychological character sketch. It’s a small, subdued tale with a slim script, a downbeat tone and a rather inevitable outcome. But it vibrates at its own frequency, maintaining an air of incipient violence and inner-city urban dread from start to finish. Ruffin (who appeared in a few episodes of “The Good Wife”) and Levine (who showed up in Netflix’s “The OA”) are required to carry a lot on their young shoulders. Although the role requires him to be slate-faced and affectless, Ruffin feels authentic and even sympathetic as poor Milo, giving a depth to the character that is only hinted at in O’Shea’s tightlipped script. Levine, meanwhile, is perfectly cast as the baby-faced girl who’s seen far too much of this carnal word. Their tender—but never sappy—relationship keeps the film rooted in reality.
In the end, there’s nothing particularly transformative about The Transfiguration. It’s a glum, low-key film with a few clever ideas that never quite emerges from the shadow of the films it references (expect, of course that stupid Twilight). Hardcore vampire fans might be the most attracted—but the film’s sparse gore and measured pacing might not be what they’re in the mood for. Instead, this dark debut is best exerting its queasy magnetism on lovers of art-house horror, who will appreciate its subtle manipulations of genre conventions.