How much can a reviewer really say about The Transfiguration without entering into spoilers?
It is a vampire film – one with a difference.
The bloodsucker is young Milo (Eric Ruffin) a fourteen year old (but looks younger) African-American boy who we first see feasting on the neck of an older white guy in a restroom cubicle. A guy outside notices, but then looks away.
Milo lives with his older brother, Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), a veteran living in the projects – that’s American for housing estate. Lewis doesn’t get out much; we mostly see him watching TV.
Milo is mostly glued to his laptop also, watching vampire movies streamed from the internet. He’s a ‘Netflix and Kill’ kind of kid. What he can do with VHS copies of The Lost Boys, Nadja and more is anyone’s guess. Oh yes, he hides money behind them, taken from his victims.
Milo is a serial killer, but one that excites no feeling of dread when he enters the frame. You are more afraid for him than of him. We see him spoken to by an (off-camera) counsellor and queue inside a post office to cash a cheque. In a traditional serial-killer movie, we see victims from the killer’s point of view. Milo appears more victim than killer here.
Milo doesn’t take notes in class. He keeps his own journal in which he writes ‘rules’. His calendar identifies a day in each month on which his bloodlust will be satisfied.
His life transforms when he meets Sophie (Chloe Levine) who lives on the ninth floor with her grandfather. He is drawn to her when he first sees her self-harming with a knife – a ‘come hither’ for any self-respecting Nosferatu.
Debutante writer-director Michael O’Shea charts the awkward relationship between these troubled teens, one who criticises most vampire films for being unrealistic, the other wants to escape New York City – the film is set in Queens – to stay with her cousin.
So what turned Milo into a junior vampire? There is an explanation – but it’s not entirely convincing. The attacks also increasingly lack credibility, not so much from the initial strike, but the blood-sucking itself, surprisingly unmessy.
The Transfiguration is different – and serious-minded – enough to justify its selection in Un Certain Regard at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. O’Shea himself is no overnight success story – and therefore an inspiration to late-bloomer filmmakers everywhere. He graduated from the State University of New York (SUNY) in the 1990s, worked as a cab driver and a bouncer as well as fixing computers, before deciding that he could only enter the market with a horror film. His girlfriend, Susan Leber, a film producer of some repute (Obvious Child, Learning to Drive) encouraged him to make first a short, Milo (2014) and then expand the idea into a feature. The Transfiguration begins where Milo ends.
The central thesis, as expounded by Milo, is that if something like vampires has been in the culture long enough, then it must be real. This is a suspect argument, especially when applied to race. Racial stereotypes have existed for centuries too, so they must also be real. But Milo’s point of view isn’t O’Shea’s. When O’Shea equates vampires with African-Americans, what he is really saying is that the myths about both groups are untrue. In the centrepiece scene, Milo lures a white kid wanting ‘Molly’ to a basement where he comes face to face with a teen gang. The gang abrades the drug-seeker for judging them with a stereotype: they are black, so therefore they must have drugs. What they have instead are bad tempers and a gun.
O’Shea’s second serious point is around the behaviour of a vampire; they must know that killing is wrong. This forms the basis of the film’s finale.
Described by some critics as a neo-realist vampire movie – Nosferatu shot by Vittorio De Sica – The Transfiguration is filmed with long lenses in locations where the locals don’t know they are in a movie; at least one scene has a tell-tale wobble. On the scale of Milo’s favourite vampire movies, it is closer to Martin than Let The Right One In. Milo frequently asks if he can leave, rather than enter.
It is also the second release in recent months – the other being Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits – where a white filmmaker has taken a black subject not to exploit the market but to make an alternative to Hollywood African-American cinema – that is, anything produced by Will ‘Power’ Packer. Chad Hartigan’s Morris from America, screened at last year’s Sundance London, is another example of this. With the success of Moonlight, I can see black filmmakers kicking back against this trio of movies. They can make their own independent, counter-cultural cinema, thanks very much. On its own merits, O’Shea’s film is worth a look, but the Cannes Film Festival would have gained better credibility by screening the work of new African-American filmmakers.
The Transfiguration is out on DVD & Blu-Ray now!