★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A sad and poignant little independent coming-of-age story of a would-be little urban vampire, whose pushes back against his miserable life in the New York ghetto in a very strange and sociopathic way.
Directed by Michael O’Shea
Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a troubled young teen. He lost his mother to a suicide, and his father when he was very young. He’s constantly bullied by neighborhood thugs, who call him out as the “Freak”. He’s shy, he’s thoughtful, he’s very awkward, and he is obsessed with vampires. He constantly watches classic vampire films and animal predation films, studying their actions and behavior like a lab scientist. More to the point, Milo is also a little sociopath who ambushes people, murders them, and sucks the blood from their jugulars. Yeah, that.
Granted, he’s not truly a vampire. In fact, he can’t really even stomach drinking the blood, as he will vomit up the evening buffet shortly after indulging himself. Most of the time he is powerless. His exasperated brother, Lewis (Aaron Moten) tries to protect him, but can’t understand him, is unaware of Milo’s nocturnal activities, and despite living together, keeps his distance. Milo is a young man at the bottom of the world’s pecking order, where economically he is stuck in the projects, he is friendless, and constantly under siege by bullies. Vampirism is his way to reclaim some semblance of power.
Things begin to turn around for him when Sophie (Chloe Levine) moves in upstairs. The “white girl” as Lewis refers to her is similarly a sad societal outcast, prone to suicidal thoughts. She is fascinated by Milo, and the two awkward and sad youngsters bond over their shared lonesome upbringings. Milo shares his love of vampires with Sophie, and she admits to liking Twilight, which he dismisses as not being “real” enough. Real vampires don’t sparkle! Now, for the first time in his life, Milo has found a friend who knows he’s crazy and still embraces him. Awwww!
Eventually, though, Milo’s darker secrets begin to slowly emerge, and Sophie grows wary. Milo comes to terms that he can set all thing right in his world, and manages to tie all of his ongoing issues into one clean plan. The bullies. Sophie. Vampirism. He’s got it figured out, and the reveal of his master plan at the end is weighty and earned.
The Transfiguration came out from the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 and created a whole bunch of buzz. However, this is very much an indie flick. It is a slowwwww burner. It is also, curiously, hard to watch. You want to root for Milo, and you really empathize with him. In a lot of ways, he is like Oskar from Let the Right One In, a movie which Milo actually name drops. But, in this case, Milo is both the bullied little boy AND the vampire.
In truth, however, the audience has to come to grips that he’s not really a vampire. There is nothing supernatural about his actions. He’s a cunning little serial killer, who just will drink the blood of his victims, using a pen-knife to do his dirty work instead of fangs. What humanizes him is the coming of age romance with Sophie, and Chloe Levine is terrific as his muse and confident. It also makes you constantly fear that Milo might just snap and do something horrible to her. Ah, dramatic tension! Don’t do it, Milo! Eric Ruffin manages to pull off Milo with equal parts detachment and anxiety. He acts with his eyes extremely well, which is essential for a character who does not say much.
O’Shea is practically gilding his Easter Eggs and references for this film. It clearly borrows elements from many classic horror movies, and lovingly pays homage to them. The Transfiguration shares a lot in common with George Romero’s Martin, dealing with a similarly troubled young man who fancies himself as a vampire. A common trope in many horror movies is to play the source material films in the movie. In this case, Milo and Sophie are constantly watching vampire movies, most prominently Nosferatu. Milo’s VHS shelf has Dracula Untold, Near Dark, The Lost Boys, Fright Night, Blade Trinity, Vampire Hunter D, Najda, and The Addiction all prominently shown. It’s a who’s who of vampire movies. And for casting easter eggs, look for appearances of Lloyd Kaufman and Larry Fessenden, familiar faces for fans of the genre.
I found the introduction of the references to be a bit jarring. Like name dropping a b-list celebrity during a party conversation to earn validation and social cred. It pulled me out of the film, but I get it. The director loves himself some bloodsuckers, and he’s going to do a roll call of his source material.
The movie also resembles A Dark Song, a movie from the same year. Both films are drawn out and contemplative. Minimal dialogue, and long periods of hush. This movie demands patience. Though this is not a found footage movie, it has a very hand-held slightly sloppy feel to it. The camera is constantly lolling about, never sitting still. And yet, there are some terrifically composed shots of New York, with O’Shea allowing the environs to enhance the loneliness of the characters.
This is not a conventionally enjoyable movie. It starts with awkward, moves to bleak, past melancholy, and on to tragedy. It’s not totally without rays of hope, as Milo and Sophie struggle to rise above it all. If you like your movies fun, goofy, and fast-paced, The Transfiguration will annoy you. But, if you’re a fan of indie Horror and like dark emotional resonance and character studies, you will find this movie quite rewarding.