The Transfiguration (2016)

First published by Sight & Sound, May 2017

Review: “There’s no such thing as a realistic vampire,” Sophie (Chloe Levine) tells Milo (Eric Ruffin) in The Transfiguration – the feature debut of writer/director Michael O’Shea, and a continuation of O’Shea’s 2014 short Milo.

A diminutive, withdrawn African-American teenager, Milo is preoccupied with vampire films, drawn particularly to those, like Martin (1978), Near Dark (1987) and Let The Right One In (2008), that he deems ‘realistic’. Now that Sophie, white and an orphan like himself, has moved into his Queens tenement to live with her violent grandfather, Milo has, possibly for the first time, a friend in whom he can confide about his undead obsessions. His realist outlook extends to his unsentimental attitudes towards the actual dead. “It is what it is,” is all he can say to Sophie of his father’s passing when Milo was eight – and “It’s just something that happened,” is his summary of his mother’s death. Milo is certainly haunted by his mother’s suicide – he still dreams of the primal scene where she is laid out in bed with her wrists open as his younger self tentatively tastes her blood with his finger – but he seems more haunted by the monstrousness of his own affect-free response to her death.

DP Sung Rae Cho shoots mostly in handheld, capturing Milo’s Queens milieu as a place of predatory realism, all aggressive bullies, dangerous gangs and Machiavellian police. Milo is constantly under threat, but also a hunter in his own right. For, like the young black antihero of Boaz Yakin’s Fresh (1994), he is struggling to strategise and navigate his way through a hostile criminal environment, except that the metaphor which he has chosen as his guide is not chess but vampirism. Accordingly, he methodically murders random strangers and drinks their blood, operating by a carefully formulated set of rules. It is as though somehow Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016) had merged with Craig William Macneill’s The Boy (2015) or Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not A Serial Killer (2016), as we simultaneously watch the difficult adolescence of a young African American with a secret, and the emergence of a multiple murderer. Only the presence of Sophie – damaged like Milo, but using a blade against herself rather than others – allows Milo both to imagine a better life and to plan different escape routes for the pair of them.

In Milo’s extensive film collection, we do not see copies of William Crain’s Blacula (1972) or Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973) – but nonetheless The Transfiguration represents an estimable addition to the small body of black vampire films. Horror directors Lloyd Kaufman and Larry (Habit) Fessenden aptly cameo as two of Milo’s victims, in a film that is careful to position itself against other genre films. Indeed, The Transfiguration ends up being precisely that elusive kind of realistic vampire movie – so realistic, indeed, that its vampires are only figurative – which Milo himself favours. It is also a sensitive, melancholic and ultimately moving study of an alienated boy’s earnest encounter with his own inhumanity and his potential for self-sacrificing good.

Synopsis: Queens, New York, the present. Milo drinks a dead stranger’s blood in a public toilet, and takes his money. A school counsellor reveals Milo’s history of harming animals. Milo helps Sophie as she moves into his building, and later connects with her after she is gang-banged by some boys. Even as Milo secretly realises his obsession with vampires by stabbing random strangers in the neck and drinking their blood, a relationship develops between him and self-harming Sophie – both damaged orphans. Sophie locates the grave of Milo’s mother – a suicide – and they visit it together. Milo reveals to Sophie his theory that vampires cannot commit suicide. Milo lures white drug seeker Mike into his building’s basement, only for Andre’s local gang to intervene and murder Mike. When Milo refuses to snitch, the police deliberately drop him off in front of the gang. Abused by her grandfather upstairs, Sophie moves in with Milo and his older brother Lewis, but leaves again after discovering Milo’s incriminating notebooks and blade. Milo murders a drunk man and his young daughter in Greenwich Village, and passes on the goods he has stolen to Andre, supposedly as a goodwill gesture. Milo gives a statement to the police, and Andre and his gang are arrested for the Greenwich murders. Milo hands over all his stolen money to Sophie, insisting that she use it to get away to her cousin in Alabama. Milo stays behind, letting the gang shoot him.

© Anton Bitel