After happening upon its trailer and reading bits of glowing praise online, I sat down for The Transfiguration with a vague expectation of a gritty cinéma vérité take on vampire lore. As the credits rolled, I left the theater shaken and unnerved, woefully unprepared to face skeletons of the past that the experience had exhumed. An obstruction of my inner workings had been jostled loose, leading to a tearful breakdown during my commute up the FDR later that night. The Transfiguration is an intensely provocative horror parable that will stay with you long after your viewing.
Eric Ruffin stars as Milo, a troubled teen with an obsession for vampire mythology. His predilection for the macabre seems to be all at once an escape from his tortured existence and an acute symptom of serious psychological damage from past trauma. The beleaguered youth suffers the indignities of school bullies, neighborhood gang members, and authority figures that would label him a freak or a head case. However, it is made clear from the very start that beyond a simple infatuation with vampire lore, Milo is in fact a cold and calculated serial murderer who consumes the blood of his victims. His serial masquerade is interrupted by Sophie (Chloe Levine), a girl new to the neighborhood dealing with serious trauma of her own. Hope for mutual healing is born through their growing relationship, but Milo’s blood lust proves it will not be so easily abated.
The Transfiguration is very much a modern Gothic tale, taking place in the metaphorical and literal shadows of New York City’s metropolitan spires. Milo lives in the projects of Far Rockaway, among the rundown beaches and decaying rubble that time and progress seem to have forgotten. Milo establishes Manhattan as his primary hunting ground, escaping to his residential outskirts once his deed is done. His soul crushing ritual mirrors the millions of other commuters trekking into the big city via the MTA subway and bus system, arteries branching out to the farthest reaches of the other boroughs. The lifeblood of Gotham, its never-ending pulse. While the symbiotic parasite of gentrification steadily subsumes Old New York, vestigial enclaves remain, the residents resigned to an uncertain fate.
Though not a major conceit, the racial subtext of the film felt nonetheless unavoidable. Throughout the proceedings, the controversial concept of the Superpredator came to mind, as a young black boy traversed the concrete jungle on a murdering spree, looting the pockets of his fallen prey. In a brief chat with director Michael O’Shea after my screening, I learned that I wasn’t too far off in my assumption. However, rather than being specifically about the fear of black boys, O’Shea was more concerned with the concept of predation on a grander scale and how society locks us into systems and environments in which we are forced to feed off of each other. From the Wall Street brokers who leech on the populace leading to market collapses, all the way down to the thugs posted up on the corner who might jack a kid for his sneakers and chain, to the middle class in between who keep the gears turning through rampant consumerism fostered by cultural appropriation. Millions of humans stacked on top of each other, forced into close proximity. Though civilization exists as a means to foster cooperation for the sake of survival, our baser nature easily twists our divine institutions into a well oiled meat grinder.
The combination of a black kid mercilessly targeting white people, the stereotypical black gang members, and Milo’s relationship with Sofia — a white girl — written and directed by an older white man all pose very provocative statements that can potentially be interpreted as offensive. I wrestled with the immediate emotions of this imagery, but the further I got into the film, the deeper the film began to resonate with my own past experiences and issues that I continue to struggle with to this day.
I often joke about my adolescence as my “Angry Black Youth” phase, but I was actually dealing with significant emotional turmoil in the form of my parents’ separation and eventual divorce. My anxiety and despair bubbled over into a strange form of apathetic rage. I gave a fuck not for anyone or anything beyond my own immediate animal desires and instincts. I drowned myself in my obsession with weightlifting and my nerdier pursuits such as genre movies and anime. I was an anti-social awkward 17 year old walking around at nearly 230lbs, a Molotov cocktail of raging hormones and bitter depression. I wandered the city hoping and praying that someone would bump into me, giving me a sliver of an excuse to get into a violent confrontation. I sized up and judged the passers by, scoffing at the vapid teenagers, manipulative adults, arrogant dude bros, snooty rich bitches, and the dregs of humanity at large as if I was some homicidal Heavy Metal Hip-Hop Holden Caulfield. On rare occasions, I shamefully acted on my impulses in violent explosive outbursts. I sometimes wish I could hurt myself to absolve the pain I have caused others. I still bear the scar of the one time I tried. I saw the Milo on screen as what I once was, and it chilled me to the bone.
There was an even greater resonance to be felt near the end through a quietly profound reveal from Milo’s older brother Lewis, played by Aaren Morten. Milo and Lewis deal with their shared past tragedy in different ways, but when Lewis hints at further trauma in unspecified military service, I truly felt the stake into my heart. Milo’s conscience begins to eat away at him after a particularly gruesome event, but Lewis appeals to him with a poignantly simple remark: “whatever shit you worried about, there’s people out there that done a million times worse”. This statement offers little consolation when compared the the magnitude of what Milo has done, but I took it less as an empty platitude and more as a fatalist resolution. No matter where we are on the food chain of life, we all take advantage of someone else in some way. When it comes to our large scale societal transgressions against each other, there is often little we can do outside our own purview. While there is incremental change to be made, travesties that range from police brutality to chemical warfare genocide are the results systems that have been set in motion long ago, not likely to be halted abruptly anytime soon. I feel the weight of this sin constantly, from my interpersonal betrayals of others to my compliance with the gears of war that have caused so much suffering. I want my efforts at love and friendship to counteract my wrongdoings, but nothing can wash away the stain of dirt and blood.
The legend of the Vampire, like all of civilization’s mythical monsters, is but a representation and manifestation of fears and vices that have been with us since the dawn of mankind. The thing we refer to as a demon is not an external force or an interfering presence, it is the summation of the sin, the sickness, the hatred, the twisted perversion that haunts us, that drives us, that rules us. The Transfiguration is a harrowing and visceral horror movie experience, while also being a poetic rumination on love and loss. It forgoes the melodramatic flourish and visual sheen of most modern vampire films and slasher flicks, instead using grit and solemn realism to tell a powerfully intimate story. The astounding deep tissue thematics in concert with those other attributes makes this not only a stand out for one of the best films of the year, but a true cinematic experience for the ages that will not be easily forgotten. Like those aforementioned demons within, The Transfiguration will haunt me for years to come.