Some wells never seem to run dry. Cinema has embraced the vampire myth since folks started putting images on film, making monsters out men and embracing the carnal elements of blood-sucking lore to explore humanity’s complicated relationship with our own mortality and lusty instincts. While the vampire movie has fallen out of fashion in recent years, every once and a while a filmmaker finds a fresh perspective on the genre that reminds you why these archetypes make for such robust ruminations on human nature. The latest proud entry in the vampire catalogue is The Transfiguration, a bleak and brutal depiction of bloodlust and isolation from first-time writer-director Michael O’Shea.
The film follows Milo (Eric Ruffin), a reclusive black teenager living in the housing projects of Far Rockaway in Queens, New York. Orphaned by a suicidal mother, Milo lives with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), a military vet struck down depression who spends all his time on the couch watching TV. The lonely duo live together but rarely communicate, bickering over bills or talking about the criminal activities in their neighborhood, which is run by the local gang Lewis is to hang with. Their mother’s suicide changed them both, but Milo most of all, leaving a withdrawn and strange young man who is the ultimate outsider.
Milo also happens to believe he is a vampire. By day, he mass consumes vampire lore and does his best to avoid the criminal influences around him. At night, he’s a predator in his own right, killing at random to drink human blood. Milo has no fangs, he doesn’t mind the sun or garlic, but feels the irresistible urge. Whether or not he’s truly a mythological monster is never confirmed or denied, but O’Shea sows the seeds of doubt early. Is Milo the blood-sucking creature he believes himself to be? Or is he a budding sociopath with a literal thirst for blood; a young man who survives by fashioning himself as something invincible? The film never spells out the answer, though there are plenty of clues laid out to suggest the truth, including the origin of Milo’s bloodlust, which is at once heartbreaking and revolting.
Milo is detached and gloomy until he meets Sophie (Chloe Levine), a troubled girl about his age who moves into his building to live with her abusive grandfather. Insecure and used to taking hits, there’s a bedraggled sweetness to the sullen teenage girl, who dreams of escape but cuts herself for relief in the meantime. While she’s put off by Milo’s creepy behavior at first, the two quickly strike up an intimate romance that forces Milo to reckon with the moral implications of his murderous impulses and sets him on the path to design his own redemption.
O’Shea plays a game of sympathetic chicken with his audience, asking us to remain alongside Milo through a string of violent misdeeds, each more damnable than the next. But the director plays the game cleverly by always taking an unflinching look at his monster. And with extraordinary support from Ruffin, who pulls off a Herculean performance, carrying the entire film on his shoulders and commanding every scene with confident stillness. O’Shea frames the film simple and steady, abandoning the flash of propulsive editing and splatter set-pieces in favor of letting the camera linger on his lead long enough to make a meal out of Ruffin’s microexpressions and subtle gesture.
Ultimately the film goes much darker than you initially expect. Pitch dark, with shocking moments of violent intensity that is, at times, deeply horrific and disturbing. These moments are leaden with a weight that settles in the sick pit of your stomach as you watch a character you love commit and set in motion unforgivable acts. O’Shea crafts quiet moments of primal terror with steadfast authenticity and commitment to tackling the subject matter honestly. Milo is obsessed with realistic vampire films, and The Transfiguration is about as realistic as one can be, skewing the archetypes of vampire mythology through a prism of character drama, class struggle, and a portrait of grief.
O’Shea pulls heavily from his horror predecessors, most notably Martin and Let the Right One In, with a healthy splash of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the film pays tribute to those sources directly. Milo’s TV is a never-ending stream of classic vampire films, and he deconstructs the mythos with Sophie, who prefers fantastical vampire tales like Twilight and True Blood. It’s never enough to detract from the authenticity of Milo’s story, but the entire film is crafted as a bit of a love letter to the genre. O’Shea even sneaks in Larry Fessenden and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman as two of Milo’s victims.
The Transfiguration is a chilly, somber spin on vampire lore that sets roots in reality and blossoms into a bittersweet coming of age character piece. In his feature debut, O’Shea navigates difficult terrain with impressive tonal precision. Vampire stories have always put us face to face with mortality. If a creature can only survive by killing, is that life worth living? The Transfiguration asks difficult questions and never cheaps out on the answers. The truth may be difficult to swallow, but O’Shea is determined not to look the other way.
The Transfiguration opens in New York City on April 7th and in Los Angeles on April 21st.