Using vampirism for allegorical purposes, Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration is a truly stunning and heartbreaking effort from a first-time director who demonstrates an appreciation for horror, showing how the genre can be a vessel for exploring stories with deeper meanings without getting too preachy or heavy-handed. Anchored by incredible performances from Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine, The Transfiguration defies yet embraces its conventions, all while playing like a love letter to the vampire sub-genre. This riveting progressive horror story sunk its teeth deep into my soul.
The Transfiguration follows Milo (Ruffin), a troubled teen living in New York City with his older brother, Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), after losing both of his parents. Milo has a fascination (“obsession” might be a more accurate term) with vampires, and it’s starting to spill over into his everyday life. Consumed with thoughts of blood and killing, Milo even studies online videos of animals being brutally slaughtered. But when Milo meets an awkward young woman named Sophie (Levine), he begins to come out of his shell, confusing his primal urges and forcing him to confront the misdeeds he’s done in the name of becoming a vampire.
While not your typical bloodsucking cinematic fare, The Transfiguration does an incredible job of balancing out the horror elements we’d expect, but also takes a different approach to its story, with O’Shea using various tropes as metaphors for the real crises Milo faces as he navigates a crime-ridden environment of poverty, drugs, gun violence, and gangs who consume impressionable teens at every turn. It takes a subtle touch to use vampirism as an allegory for such atrocities, but O’Shea demonstrates a great ability to make his points stick with you, even long after the film concludes.
For those of you who grew up loving vamps as much as I did, O’Shea’s own appreciation for the sub-genre is evident from start to finish in The Transfiguration. From Milo’s VHS collection featuring titles like Dracula Untold, The Lost Boys, and Fright Night, to the posters adorning his walls (the iconic image of the titular vampire from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu is displayed prominently over his bed) to Milo’s references throughout The Transfiguration—including Let the Right One In, Near Dark, and Martin—I immediately fell in love with Milo. He’s my kind of horror fan. Milo mentions that his favorite flavor of bloodsucking entertainment are films that are “realistic” in their portrayal of night stalkers, so when his new friend, Chloe, tries to introduce Twilight into his world, there’s a fun back and forth between them.
That’s precisely why I immediately felt connected to Milo while watching The Transfiguration. He’s so damn engaging and likeable, yet you know he’s doing truly terrible things that make you feel conflicted about him as the film’s protagonist. You want to judge his actions, but he’s honestly just a mixed-up kid who’s had a rough go of it and found an outlet through his love of vampires. That’s something that really spoke to me as a genre fan.
The Transfiguration hinges on the performances of both Ruffin and Levine, and they deliver beautifully raw portrayals of two lost kids in their cruel, parent-less world that forces them to grow up way too soon. Here’s hoping this film becomes a breakout project for all involved, because O’Shea and his co-stars certainly deserve recognition for what they achieve here. Also, horror fans should keep an eye out for cameos by Lloyd Kaufman, who plays a bum, and Larry Fessenden, who appears as a drunkard who gets served his just desserts by Milo.
Horror has always been a powerful vehicle for delivering subtle socio-political messages, and with The Transfiguration, O’Shea has created a beautiful love letter to the genre, as well as a powerful statement on some of the issues that have long plagued lower-income neighborhoods and those who just struggle to get by in life. As far as progressive horror fare goes, The Transfiguration is a standout effort from all involved, and it absolutely broke my heart (in the best way possible).
Movie Score: 4/5
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