Since the dawn of cinema, vampires have existed in cinematic culture. Occasionally, the genre seems dead. The viewer, the creator, everyone involved has done everything they can do with the infamous bloodsuckers. Then a film drops onto the scene to deliver a shock to the system. Fright Night (1985). Let The Right One In (2008). And now, smack dab in the first half of 2017, The Transfiguration is here to present an entirely grounded, subversive look at the sub-genre.
Milo (Eric Ruffin) lives in the ghetto of a Brooklyn, keeping to himself, occasionally interacting with his brother who makes his home on the couch watching television at all hours. The local gangbangers harass him, calling him “freak” and “weirdo”, but he mostly ignores them and focuses on his one and only interest: vampires. Milo has a large collection of old VHS tapes with the gamut of vamps across them, also poring over any text he can find on the folklore. It quickly becomes apparent that Milo is not just fascinated with vampirism, he is obsessed. The routine of his life is changed when Sophie (Chloe Levine) moves in, an awkward and abused white girl who stands out in his urban suburb. She quickly latches onto him, as they are both loners and outcasts, and a friendship blooms into a relationship. Milo’s dark secrets eventually come to light and trigger a string of events that drastically change both children’s lives.
Michael O’Shea is almost a rookie when it comes to filmmaking but he proves that he has some clout and is easily a standout amongst new genre directors. He delicately balances the all too real drama of the situation while teetering viciously into guttural horror. While a lot of modern horror does a great job at building and delivering tension, O’Shea sets out to prove that he can up this game. Instead of a needle steadily driving forward, he keeps it at low steady hum, building the characters in the quiet moments, and will suddenly hammer on the throttle and deliver a visceral and brutal scene. Coupled with a fuzzy bass and throb motif, viewers learn to anticipate the kill but are never quite ready for the savagery of it. The dichotomy between the nearly emotionless character of Milo and his acts of aggression makes him a sympathetic protagonist that you can’t help but feel for. His chemistry with Sophie drives that empathy even further while also presenting one of the most natural progressions of a relationship within a horror film.
Chloe Levine and Eric Ruffin captain the ship as Sophie and Milo, respectfully. Both set a solid foot forward and will be a powerful force in cinema, no doubt about it. It’s truly astounding what both actors manage to do in the silent moments. With pure physical nuance, a lip bite or an absent-minded gaze, they bring a gravitas to the film that actors twice their age with twice the lines often do. The supplementary actors do their job at pushing the plot forward but this movie is almost solely built around Levine and Ruffin. Plus, cameos from Lloyd Kaufman and Larry Fessenden are always fun.
This isn’t to say the film doesn’t have a few missteps. Sometimes it seems O’Shea brakes when he should speed up, and the movie is a razor thin line away from shooting itself in the foot, referencing modern classics such as Martin (1978) and Near Dark (1987) when it doesn’t manage to really present quite as much psychological substance or action as either of those films. Ultimately, these hiccups don’t prevent the movie from solidifying itself as a rock solid debut from a promising rookie director and a fantastic young cast.