The Transfiguration (2017)
Written & Directed by Michael O’Shea
Milo is an orphaned teenage boy living in New York City. He lives with his Army veteran brother who is unable to get a job, never explained but implied by either physical or mental injury. Milo has a secret though, he is a vampire. Or Milo believes he is a vampire and has marked out on his calendar the nights he will feed. He’ll stalk bathrooms or hang out in Central Park late into the night, using a secret pen knife to slit his victims’ throats and then lapping up their blood. In the midst of this very dark existence, Milo meets Sophie, a girl who has just moved into his apartment building. They strike up a friendship that becomes a relationship, and Milo attempts to keep his secret from Sophie while fighting his urge to feed on her.
From scene one, The Transfiguration sets its morose, bleak tone and does not let up. I am a sucker for well-made low budget horror films, especially films that aren’t using gore as a crutch and develop their characters. Writer-director O’Shea spends most of his movie with Milo and Sophie, strengthening their relationship and letting our protagonist’s sense of dread and conflict build. Actor Eric Ruffin plays Milo with perfection, the character is incredibly stoic, implied that this is a result of trauma and that adds to both the depth of his performance and the sense of his otherworldliness. He’s supported by Chloe Levine as Sophie who conveys the right amount of young, teenage girl without losing honesty, she feels like a real human rather than a caricature of a teenager.
The Transfiguration lives between a horror film and a drama. If you read or listen to reviews, you’ll hear a few of the same film titles referenced in comparison (Martin, Let the Right One In). O’Shea aims to go for a more “realistic” approach to vampires, echoed by Milo when Sophie brings up Twilight, and they have a discussion on the nature of these mythical monsters. We’re also left with ambiguity about the vampiric nature of Milo. He has a monologue where he sets up what he believes the rules are, mainly that you don’t get bitten by another vampire to become one. Instead, it is like a disease. Then, over time as you kill and drink you change bit by bit. Milo is a student of the vampire genre in both film, television, and literature. He watches videos online that depict the slaughtering of animals or graphic nature programs. His school counselor implies in their conversations that he once had a penchant for hurting small animals. The question at the core of this film is “Is Milo a vampire or just a serial killer?”
The Transfiguration most reminded me of the low budget horror cinema of Larry Fessenden, who makes a cameo as a victim in the third act of the film. His films, like Wendigo and The Last Winter, use horror tropes and conceits as a jumping off point to tell human stories, often oozing with mood and atmosphere rather than blood or gore. Fessenden has also been a producer on the films of Ti West, another horror director whose work is very comparable to The Transfiguration, focused on tone and character instead of jumpscares. If you are a horror fan who is seeking out the type of product Blumhouse churns out into theaters on a quarterly basis then are likely going to be disappointed. In the same way that It Comes At Night subverted expectations, The Transfiguration goes to places and becomes something that I don’t think a “gnarly horror dude” is looking for. This is a very nuanced, thoughtful piece of cinema that is meant to linger with you.