The Vampire as movie monster may be the most resilient of all creatures. Time nor trend never seem to drive a stake through its non-beating heart. So it is always with trepidation that one approaches a “new take” on a monster that has cycled through every conceivable genre. Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration takes on the seemingly impossible task not by simply tweaking the rules or location, but telling his story through the most vital and universal narrative lens there is: the human heart. The Transfiguration is a straight-up, coming-of-age story that wears its influences on its sleeve. Rare is the work in any medium that can boldly namecheck what came before it and then nestle itself, instantly, into the canon of works that inspired it.
The film is a true “New York Movie” aesthetically reminiscent of the grindhouse sleaze of early Abel Ferrara (The Driller Killer) or William Lustig (Maniac) with a gritty authenticity that can’t be duplicated on a studio lot. These are the seemingly shot-stolen set-ups that passersby might wander into, that involve a smart PA working a curbside hustle to buy some time. They are, of course, always intentional and meaningful. This is the not-for-tourists New York that the Safdie Brothers are being lauded for capturing with their brilliant film Good Time starring Robert Pattinson (a former Twilight vampire whose burdensome fame just won’t die). But it’s not that kind of a vampire story. To our brilliant, yet broken protagonist, Milo (a simply terrifyingly genuine and layered performance by Eric Ruffin) that kind of vampire story is simply not “realistic”, and as is the case for most teenagers, authenticity matters most.
Milo believes he may just be a vampire. Living in the projects near Rockaway Beach, he is confronted with cruelty routinely. Whether it be bullying from neighborhood kids or taunts from local gang members, Milo is in the crosshairs because like most horror fans
(which is what Milo really is at heart) he’s just not like the other kids.
There something far darker in his oddball tendencies because the kind of psychic violence he has and does endure is filtered through a radical transference. Milo is hungry for blood. His New York projects millieu is not unfamiliar. It is his resilience and intelligence in navigating his world, despite the horrific acts of violence he commits that make him altogether likable. In his own way, Milo’s ingenuity and iconography (backpack always seeming to be strapped) are not dissimilar from Boaz Yakin’s titular character Fresh.
Milo’s room is a coffin of his own creation, brimming with both vampire influences (the VHS stacks of vampire movies are a veritable bibliography of cinematic vampire knowledge) and as yet to be executed plans. The thoroughness and singularity of his obsession reflect an intelligence that of course could be channeled elsewhere. But Milo is a kid from the projects, and beyond an obligatory school therapist or a cop, if he has a tip, no one seems to give a shit.
He “feeds” intermittently, a calendar marking his awkward, brutal attempts to satiate a drive he doesn’t understand. The days between kills are getting closer together. Despite his body reacting violently to each kill, whether racked by waves of physical illness or an ignored moral compass, he won’t quit.
Milo’s violence is not nearly as unprincipled or reactionary as the gang members who scrap to survive and hang out in front of the building. On the surface, he operates by ten rules, a code of sorts, some gleaned from movies he deems realistic. George Romero’s Martin openly influences both Milo and O’Shea. The insertion of the reference is meta without being cloying.
Much like Martin, a girl draws his attention. A white girl, Sophie (a searingly genuine performance by Chloe Levine) has moved to the projects, and she’s seemingly kooky enough that she couldn’t blend in any suburban cul-de-sac either. She’s no Manic Pixie Fairy: her earnestness keeps her believable. Although others in the building initially hound them when they’re together, her race is no big deal to Milo. Being a true misfit in their world transcends race.
Sophie and Milo have both known tragedy, have both known violence, and are able to speak about their past with the flatness of trauma. They’ve been through the ringer though neither of them is capable of fully giving voice to that. Their violent actions are actually echoes of they’re not-so-distant pasts. They’re too resilient to call themselves “victims,” but they actually are.
Milo knows something isn’t right with him and this struggle drives him. Whether he gives into it taking to the streets as a self-created vampire or retreats from it within vampire mythology, he is always battling. Because of Ruffin’s incredible performance, we see it churning in every emotionally-repressed reply.
O’Shea is able to capture the intimacy of the bloom of Sophie and Milo’s first-love through stripped-down aesthetics. Without the intrusion of swooping cameras or music always cueing emotion, at times the film feels like a documentary. This aesthetic is reminiscent of the American strain of Italian Neo-Realism, brutally genuine films like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. All of it, including the violence, just feels real.
Art-House Horror is not simply gore with the feels. It is a manifestation of subconscious struggle, of deeply rooted dramatic concerns that would resonate without the buckets of blood. The monster embodies the monstrous that dwells in us all. The current crushing wave of Art-House Horror (films like The Babadook, We Are What We Are, It Follows) may have started with another vampire film, Let the Right One In, and it most likely will not end with this one. What makes The Transfiguration truly special is it has pulled the horror film out of the realm of the fantastic, the world of shadows, and dragged it into the most uncomfortable place possible: the cold light of day.
The Transfiguration can currently be streamed on netflix.com.