Milo (Eric Ruffin), the African-American teenager whose struggles animate The Transfiguration, is enamored of vampire movies. He has a stash of them on videotape in his bedroom closet, and he prefers the “realistic” ones — like George Romero’s Martin or Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Milo might also enjoy The Transfiguration, because it, too, is realistic — vampires don’t burn in sunlight, and they definitely don’t sparkle. They just go around preying on the vulnerable, punching a hole in their carotid arteries and slurping up the gore. When I say “they,” though, I really only mean Milo, in the literal sense. The movie is full of metaphorical bloodsuckers, stealers of innocence, abusers and sociopaths. Such is life in New York City.
Since the movie isn’t religious at all — Milo would no doubt be unaffected by a crucifix or holy water if they were used against him — one might wonder why writer-director Michael O’Shea titled it The Transfiguration, other than that it sounded cool and dark. Nobody is really transfigured here in the Christian sense, although some might say the movie itself transfigures schlock into art. It’s funny about vampire films — they lean into the artsy mode, the elegant and the expressionist, far more easily than, say, werewolf films or zombie films. Just recently we had Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and O’Shea’s film joins their number, reveling in the glum goth mood, the awkward silences, the gurgle of blood in the dark.
Milo meets a newcomer to his building — Sophie (Chloe Levine), an abused girl almost as affectless as Milo is, though she’s quicker to laugh. Milo is almost always clenched and blank-faced, but around Chloe he loosens up a bit. For a while, hanging out or watching violent videos, they seem well-matched, one’s psychological/emotional blank spots complementing the other’s. Milo’s even more dour older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), an Army veteran, is at least happy to see Milo comfortable around someone, even if she’s a white girl. That fact makes Milo even more of an object of derision for the local gang, who enjoy tormenting him.
Milo’s connection with the gang doesn’t end up where you’d expect it to in a vampire film, and his relationship with Sophie doesn’t, either. The Transfiguration is bound to be called a cross between Martin and Moonlight, though it’s not as erotic as those films. What it seems to have under the hood is something about how inhuman conditions can produce inhuman people (or, as Stephen King would put it, “this inhuman place makes human monsters”); almost everyone we see exists in some spiritually null zone. There might also be something about how black teenage males are demonized, made the monsters of the media narrative. Milo might be the result of generations of neglect benign and not-so-benign. He doesn’t seem to have much race consciousness, though. He’s too deeply into his vampire fixation — like Martin, he believes he is one, so in terms of effect he pretty much is one.
The performances are uniformly natural and unaffected; O’Shea understands that quiet desperation speaks louder than hysteria. (He also has the wit to give cameos to Troma schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman and art-house horror auteur Larry Fessenden, whose disparate styles influence this film’s.) People will sit together on the side of the wide frame, isolated yet united. The compositions are thoughtful, though always a little jiggly. O’Shea takes his time and creates an allusive atmosphere whose meanings are up for grabs. The Transfiguration could have snapped into sharper focus; it remains a bit thematically diffuse, a little underdone. But at its most haunting it earns its place in that bedroom closet next to Martin and the rest.