The Transfiguration review: a transfixing subversion of the vampire genre

Debut director Michael O’Shea's acclaimed film tells the tale of an outsider teen from the Projects with a chilling vampire obsession

Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine in ‘The Transfiguration’

Film Title: The Transfiguration

Director: Michael O’Shea

Starring: Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine, Aaron Clifton Moten, Carter Redwood, Danny Flaherty

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 97 min

Thu, Apr 20, 2017, 16:44

   

Post-Twilight and True Blood, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that vampires need a little lie down in their coffins. Dead? Undead? We don’t care – they’re looking awfully damned tired.

The end of the vogue makes Michael O’Shea’s fiendish subversion of the genre all the more surprising. Not too far into this transfixing welcome reinvention, the young hero, a vampire-obsessed outsider teen named Milo, makes reference to Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One and George Romero’s Martin. Those films, particularly the latter, set the tone and cast a pleasingly discombobulating shadow across The Transfiguration.

As with Romero’s anti-hero, we’re left to ponder whether melancholic Milo (Eric Ruffin, a superstar in the making) – who we first see dispatching a man in a public lavatory, sucking his blood, and pocketing his cash – is an overly-keen fan-boy or a genuine monster.

 The case for some class of personality disorder is carefully outlined: the boy keeps a killing diary and watches YouTube videos of slaughterhouses. He lives at home with his older brother, Lewis (Mozart in the Jungle’s Aaron Clifton Moten), an army veteran whose fraternal concern can feel like bullying and who has retreated from the dangers of the outside world. Their mother has recently killed herself. Their poor, primarily black New York neighbourhood is overrun by gangs and guns. 

Against this, Milo seems like a decent, if confused fellow who goes to school and who touchingly befriends another outcast, Sophie (Chloe Levine), a self-harming white girl with a troubled home life. Together the pair visit Rockaway Beach, a location not yet recovered from 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, and make wistful, likely doomed plans.

Even in company, Milo’s isolation is palpable: “Do people ever tell you you don’t talk a lot?” he’s asked. “No, no one ever speaks to me,” Milo replies.

It’s not just the neighbourhood or the protagonist’s ethnicity. The Transfiguration maintains a strange disassociated gaze over socio-economic and psychological distress, an out-of-body sensation that recalls John Sayles’ The Brother from Another Planet or Boaz Yakin’s Fresh in its simultaneous worldliness and otherworldliness.

 That atmosphere makes the scenes of violence all the more impactful: watch out for The Americans’ Danny Flaherty stumble into a drug deal gone very wrong, and for cult hero Larry Fessenden’s bewildered crime victim. Margaret Chardiet’s music and cinematographer Sung Rae Cho’s vérité amplify the unease. 

A lovely new addition to 2017’s splendid gallery of superior art-horrors.