The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival.
Vampire movies will never die. They won’t. Not even the faux drama of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series could drive a stake into this genre. This is because the idea of a vampire is always going to be intriguing to our culture. Unlike The Mummy, or The Wolfman, or Frankenstein, or any other Universal Monster for that matter, the vampire is an accessible and all-too-easy vessel to funnel more cerebral thoughts on society, gender, humanity…you get the point. And for all of its ebbs and flows, there’s always going to be another writer, filmmaker, or visionary who can find a way to subvert the genre for their own thesis. This is why something like Michael O’Shea’s bizarre and tantalizing debut The Transfiguration gets an easy pass.
The film tells the story of a young boy named Milo (Eric Ruffin), whose obsession with vampire culture — everything from Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In to the actual mythical lore found in gothic textbooks — has empowered him to believe he’s actually one of them. When we first meet him, he’s in a dingy bathroom stall sucking the blood out of an unfortunate businessman, whose cash he pockets after the deed. But again, he’s just a child, a child who attends school, keeps to himself, walks in the park alone, and studies on the top of his dilapidated apartment building that’s nestled in one of New York’s rare crumbling neighborhoods. At night, when he’s not preying upon the weak, he falls asleep to vampire flicks on his computer.
He’s essentially a fanboy, but his obsession with vampirism is seemingly an escape from the death of his mother. As we quickly learn, his mother committed suicide not too long ago, leaving Milo with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), an army veteran who spends most of his time on the couch watching television. They’re alone in this urban sprawl and it’s a nasty place, where drug dealers and gang members threaten around every corner. But Milo gets by, mostly because he’s the silent type, an unsuspecting figure that eerily moves from place to place. Of course, this doesn’t scare away Sophie (Chloe Levine), a young girl who’s just moved in with her grandpa, and whose white skin stands out in the prominently black neighborhood.
No, Sophie likes Milo. After all, she’s just as much of an outcast, and when the two meet outside their apartment building in a nearby derelict lawn, Milo witnesses that she’s cutting herself. Drawn by their disturbing tendencies, the two children bond and learn that they actually share quite similar backgrounds, and their relationship largely becomes the foundation of the film — but not all of it. O’Shea never forgets this is a vampire film, and he rarely takes the spotlight off of Milo, opting to sneak into his head with one long take after another. It’s a patient character study that might dissuade those who want the carnal, gory stuff by the pound, but those who enjoy a slow burn will undoubtedly revel in the silent portraits.
That’s not to say there isn’t gore. O’Shea offers a number of horrific scenes, and the way they’re weaved into the narrative is even more jarring. One segment involving The Americans star Danny Flaherty as a dope-seeking tourist to the neighborhood is a sweaty exercise in tension, while another featuring the legendary Larry Fessenden as a mumbling, drunken father is another one for the nightmares. What’s more, Ruffin sells every ounce of the terror, shifting from his guarded self to a titanic monster and then back to a confused boy, who pukes out the loads of blood with vigor. The latter transformation, or rather transfiguration, is perhaps the most confounding facet of his performance, and the way he’s able to bring those demons to the foreground says wonders about his abilities as an actor. Though, the same could be said of Levine, who carries a similarly natural streak.
The problem is that, for all of its cinematic merits, there’s something strange about this particular vampiric parable. The way O’Shea uses the backdrop of a decaying neighborhood enters into risky terrain, and the ensuing parallels between monster and man may turn some folks off automatically. It’s admittedly jarring watching a black child tear apart a white family in Manhattan, and not for the horror at hand, but the implications some might take away from such an image. To his credit, O’Shea paints these themes with the best intentions, and the messages are good in spirit, and the end result leaves plenty of food for thought. In hindsight, though, he probably could have shaved about 15 minutes off the end for greater (and less explicit) dramatic effect, but altogether, The Transfiguration is a curious horror film that uses the medium to the best of its abilities, sinking its teeth in all the right places.
It’s certainly not Twilight.