Themes of isolation have regularly permeated vampire stories in popular culture for years, and why wouldn’t they? Vampires are arguably the quintessential outcasts in horror, a concept explored on film in various ways, from 1922’s Nosferatu all the way to 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. On the surface, Michael O’Shea’s dark drama The Transfiguration feels like another understated take on the coming-of-age vampire tale, particularly recalling 2008’s Let the Right One In (and its 2010 American remake Let Me In) in set-up. O’Shea’s subversive and starkly melancholic perspective, however, makes for a film that feels fresh in its approach to the subgenre all on its own, using vampirism as a means of exploring the lengths one will go to escape trauma-induced grief and depression.
The film follows Milo (Eric Ruffin), a lonely, black teenage orphan living in a low-income neighborhood in Queens, New York under the care of his older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), a military veteran. Milo spends his days daydreaming in class, walking along the boardwalk alone, and watching vampire movies and graphic nature videos, all while regularly avoiding the gang members in his neighborhood who regularly taunt him for being a “freak.” Left emotionally dissociated in the wake of his mother’s recent suicide, Milo has also developed a darker practice: he feeds on the blood of unsuspecting strangers. A self-proclaimed vampire, Milo has made peace with his life in the shadows of society and the fact that he is “not good.” When a young teenage girl and fellow orphan named Sophie (Chloe Levine) moves into Milo’s building, however, he begins to question his actions and the course of his life.
What makes The Transfiguration such a striking cinematic experience is that it is not ever really about vampires at all. Every element in O’Shea’s film is grounded firmly in the reality of its low-income, crime-ridden urban backdrop, and Milo, despite his clandestine identification as a modern bloodsucker, is simply a pained young man trying to find his way to happiness in this often bleak landscape. The greatest monsters we encounter in the film as we follow Milo’s daily routine are not the undead, but rather social and environmental disparities that prevent our protagonist from ever fully comprehending the extensive effect of the life trauma he has faced at a young age. In an especially effective move, O’Shea, a first time filmmaker, is not overt or preachy in his exploration of these themes, and he subtly lets his environment speak for itself. Still, these perspectives resonate powerfully as Milo’s journey unfolds, providing a genuinely heartbreaking look at trauma, class issues, and adolescent mental health issues.
With that being established, it may not be all that surprising that there are actually no traditional vampire creatures in The Transfiguration and that Milo’s kill scenes in the film are rather light on bloodshed. Viewers expecting gritty violence from a film of this nature may certainly be put off by this and the understated, slow-burn approach taken by O’Shea. When all is said and done, The Transfiguration is likely more easily digested by the modern viewer when approached as a dark and dramatic character study rather than a traditional horror film. Still, O’Shea and cinematographer Sung Rae Cho manage to craft an isolating and even hopeless atmosphere here that is indeed threatening, and the film utilizes its more traditional horror elements–including tense moments in which Milo casually stalks potential prey–to great effect. I especially loved the unsettling, heavy synth drone that accompanied the film’s death scenes.
Beyond serving as an arresting exercise in deliberately paced filmmaking, The Transfiguration is also elevated as a deeply engaging and tragic love story thanks to the performances of its two leads. The chemistry that Ruffin and Levine quickly establish as Milo and Chloe find common ground is undeniable. Milo is a solemn and pained spirit who always appears to be deep in fantastic thought, and Ruffin’s approach to the character is marked by an astounding level of emotional acuity and authenticity. Likewise, the complex Chloe is heavily damaged–no stranger to acts of self-harm and sexual exploitation–yet she still gets genuinely excited when she chats about the Twilight series. Levine convincingly channels both a gleeful teenage girl with a crush and a young woman who has encountered harsh experiences far beyond her years. The story of Milo and Chloe manages to offer intermittent respite from the darkness elsewhere in The Transfiguration, and even if you suspect that these two are doomed, you can’t help but hold on to the tiniest glimmer of hope for a happy ending, even if only because Ruffin and Levin are such a joy to watch.
Where The Transfiguration ultimately leads will no doubt leave a lasting impression, though some may admittedly grow fatigued in the length of time it takes to get to its moving finale. The film additionally make some rather interesting decisions in regard to what it openly reveals and what it leaves to the imagination. While I am a fan of calculated ambiguity in more subversive genre efforts, I can see the lack of clear answers about Milo’s or Chloe’s backstories being another point of frustration for some. Still, upon closer inspection you will find that every part of O’Shea’s story serves a greater purpose. For those that can stick with the measured pace of the film and take time to appreciate the strong performances of its young stars along the way, I can guarantee that the poignant payoff is well worth it.
The Transfiguration screened at the 2017 SXSW Conference and Festivals on March 10, 2017 and will open in select cities in early April.