“Whatever it is you’re doing, there’s someone doing a whole lot worse.”
The vampire sub-genre of horror has grown as stale as last month’s garlic. Like the zombie sub-genre, films about vampires have fallen into a rut, relying on the same tired trappings again and again. But every once in a while a film comes along to remind you that there’s still life in this corpse yet. For zombies, it was the recent Train to Busan. For vampires, we now have The Transfiguration, the best vampire movie since 2008’s chilly Let the Right One In, 2013’s Only Lovers Left Alive and 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.
Writer-director Michael O’Shea has concocted a grimy, melancholy, often unpleasant but also effecting narrative about both humanity and lack thereof. Teenager Milo (Eric Ruffin) lives with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Moten) in a housing project in Queens. Lewis, an Iraqi war veteran, spends almost all of his time zoned-out on the couch, and with no other parent or guardian around, Milo roams free exploring his extracurricular activities: killing people and drinking their blood.
Milo is obsessed with vampire films and has an entire collection of them on VHS stashed in his closet. His obsession has turned into something deadly: he carries around a blade hidden in a pen and preys on people when they least suspect it. As The Transfiguration opens, we see Milo in a bathroom stall with an older man, accompanied by wet sucking sounds. The queasy sexual connotations are there, but a reveal shows what’s really happening: Milo is drinking this (dead) man’s blood from a gaping hole in the neck.
Things begin to change when Sophie (Chloe Levine) moves into Milo’s building. A white girl in a mostly black neighborhood, Sophie stands out, and after Milo helps her carry some bags up some steps the two strike up a friendship, although it’s clear that Milo is not much of a people person. He’s awkward, and even at times rude, around Sophie, yet the two are drawn together into clumsy yet sweet teen romance. She thinks his vampire obsessions is cute. “Have you seen Twilight?” she asks him. He hasn’t — he only likes vampire movies that are “realistic.”
A “realistic” vampire movie is, of course, an oxymoron — yet that’s exactly what The Transfiguration is. There’s nothing supernatural about Milo’s vampirism, but there’s a feral, inhuman quality to it as well. And lurking beneath all of that is a desire to change — to be something better; something less deadly.
Eric Ruffin is quite good as Milo, playing the character as quiet, calm and detached. It’s a tough balancing act, because Ruffin has to show us both Milo’s monstrous attributes as well as the goodness lurking somewhere underneath it all, and the actor rises to the challenge. However, the true breakout performance of The Transfiguration belongs to Chloe Levine, as Sophie. Levine is phenomenal, bringing a naturalism that most seasoned pros can’t match. Most of all, she seems achingly human and real when contrasted with Ruffin’s chillier, less-emotional Milo. Someone make this girl a big star, ASAP.
O’Shea’s direction is subtle but captivating. There are several sequences, particularly one where Milo breaks into a house and sets about preying upon an entire family, that radiate dread under O’Shea’s precise directing. O’Shea’s direction is complimented by Sung Rae Cho’s grainy cinematography, comprised of shots that wouldn’t look out of place in a grindhouse flick from the 70s.
There is a certain sadness that hangs over this film; the sense that even if change is possible, the outcome will not be very desirable. It’s not easy for many filmmakers to embrace such melancholy, yet O’Shea does so effortlessly. The Transfiguration may not appeal to vampire fans who like their bloodsucker films to be filled only with gothic melodrama and a supernatural aura, but viewers thirsting for some fresh blood will find themselves quenched.