Milo (Eric Ruffin), the adolescent antihero of Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration, is like the two main characters from Let the Right One In rolled into one: both bullied boy and vampire. The film opens in a bathroom in the Staten Island Ferry terminal, in which it’s hard to see what two bodies inside a stall are doing—and all you can hear is an eyebrow-raising sucking sound that’s eventually revealed to be Milo’s mouth on another man’s open neck wound. At the start, O’Shea codes Milo’s vampiric tendencies as homosexual, a mark of otherness like the boy’s introvertedness and eccentric taste in bloodsucker fictions. In Milo’s world, an economically disadvantaged seaside housing project in Brooklyn, his peers pick up on his weirdness; bullies piss on him and cornerboys holler “Freak!” as he walks by. Imagine if they knew that, once or twice a month, he hunts down white men, opening their jugulars with his pen knife to suck up what spills out.
Soon Milo meets Sophie (Chloe Levine), a disaffected white girl with psoriasis. They bond over their dead parents and shared alienation, which O’Shea emphasizes by often placing them in the frame together, overwhelmed by their surroundings. Milo shows Sophie his apartment, which he shares with his fiscally irresponsible but loving older brother, Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten). It’s decorated with pictures from vampire movies, and when Sophie asks, Milo admits that he’s never seen Twilight. That may as well be true of O’Shea, as The Transfiguration boasts no sparkly skin or Victorian YA romantics; it’s a subtle and sensitive vampire film set in an African–American community in New York City, about as far as you can get from the tone and setting of Stephenie Meyer’s series. Milo is just a vaguely creepy, vaguely sympathetic kid who spends his free time watching YouTube videos of animal-on-animal violence—including human-on-livestock—and public-domain horror movies. Naturally, Milo and Sophie’s first date is to see Murnau’s Nosferatu.
Together, they’re sweet, likable kids (despite his propensity for murder), but the pop-culture fluency imposed on them by O’Shea feels false, like the filmmaker is projecting his passions on his otherwise sincerely sketched characters. The Transfiguration implicitly, conspicuously comments on its genre without its characters needing to do so explicitly, name-dropping copious other vampire movies, debating their merits and demerits. (Milo’s favorite—or, that is, O’Shea’s favorite—is George Romero’s Martin.) There are even cameos here by Lloyd Kaufman and Larry Fessenden, as victims, that wink at us the filmmaker’s knowledge of horror cinema.
Like Fessenden’s Habit, The Transfiguration is set in a city; it was shot on subways, in public housing, and out on the streets. But it also takes place in a more untamed New York—one of desolate parks and forgotten fields, unpopulated boatyards and project rooftops—showing a Brooklyn native’s eye for locations along the borough’s southern coast. Such contrasting settings highlight a thematic conflict between man and animal, the civilized and the wild, the boy and the blood-drinking beast. Though never confirmed, it’s suggested from the beginning, when we see Milo at home, vomiting up the blood he drank at the ferry terminal, that he’s not really a vampire, in the sense of a supernatural dependence on the red stuff. The film gradually reveals itself as a real-world portrait of a psychologically sick kid, hiding, introverted, in plain sight within an unwell milieu of poverty and violence.
The depiction of that world, of the housing project and its neighborhood, sometimes relies on stereotypes. In one questionable scene, Mike (Danny Flaherty), a caricature of white privilege—shaggy blond hair, backward ball cap, California accent—visits Milo’s apartment complex and asks for his help to score some cocaine. Mike winds up in a basement, where through narrative contrivance he bumps into a band of nogoodniks, who take offense to his assuming that they’re drug dealers, lecture him on racial biases, and then kill him. Such clumsy handling of racial dynamics raises the issue of whether O’Shea, who’s white, should be the one telling this story.
O’Shea is stronger as a writer–director when he concentrates on the relationship between Milo and Sophie, whose emotional lives are rendered honestly, and on navigating the story’s uneasy relationship to its genre. Milo legitimizes his homicidal impulse with mythology, at least for a while, until he’s pushed to confront the morality of his murdering. Let the Right One In’s vampire metes out righteous vengeance to her boyfriend’s tormentors, while The Transfiguration’s vampire provocatively realizes that there’s little difference between himself and his bullies.