If vampires are defined as lethal beings who stalk the Earth feasting on human blood, Milo (Eric Ruffin), the isolated 14-year-old African American protagonist of Michael O’Shea’s quietly powerful directorial debut, technically fits the bill.
Orphaned and withdrawn, Milo lives with his older brother, a PTSD-suffering veteran, in a Brooklyn housing project rife with gangbangers who bully Milo and terrorize the block. Smart and too perceptive for his own good, he spends his lonely days and nights in the comfort of his VHS collection of vampire movies, poring over modern bloodsucking classics like “Thirst,” “Fright Night” and “Near Dark.”
Unlike most teenage boys navigating the usual existential angst of young adulthood, Milo doesn’t watch vampire flicks for kicks: He’s also studying them for “hunting” tricks, rules to avoid detection and capture and, perhaps, clues to the deep, desperate need that occasionally drives him to slip out of his apartment into the shadowy streets of Manhattan in search of his own victims.
Bold and brutal in shocking spurts, the indie horror drama from writer-director O’Shea is a startling debut that leaves a fresh mark on the genre while celebrating its forbears. “The Transfiguration’s” embrace of its own vampiric influences run so deep that low-budget schlock king Lloyd Kaufman and NYC DIY cinema stalwart Larry Fessenden (“Habit”) turn up in cameos as unlucky victims of Milo’s nighttime stalking, their blood literally feeding the hunger of a younger generation.
Milo’s routine — go to class, evade the questions of a concerned school counselor, watch more movies, find more victims—– is interrupted with the arrival of Sophie (Chloe Levine), a slightly older girl with self-destructive tendencies of her own who moves into the building with her abusive grandfather. He fights the urge to kill her and drink her blood, the surest sign of true love, or the closest thing to it he can muster.
They wander the city, trading starkly different perspectives on what makes a good vampire movie, and find unexpected solace in one another, two unmoored kids in a big, unforgiving world.
The sparkly vampires of “Twilight” do it for Sophie, but the emotionally paralyzed Milo has only one standard for vampire movies: Realism. He recommends “Let the Right One In,” the 2008 Swedish coming-of-age vampire flick about a bullied kid who falls for a vampire, and George A. Romero’s 1978 vampire tragedy “Martin” — the movies from which O’Shea’s script most heavily, and openly, borrows.
By setting “The Transfiguration” in the inner city of contemporary America — and making his protagonist young, black, male and adrift in a system primed to neglect him — O’Shea creates a film far more brutal and bleak than either of those spiritual and textual predecessors.
Whether or not Milo really must feed on human blood is left tantalizingly open-ended. The real questions surrounding what drew him to vampire lore in the first place cut directly into the mournful human yearnings that roil inside him, unable to find expression or release.
Shot perceptively by Sung Rae Cho across a concrete but vibrant New York City landscape and largely filmed “live” in uncontrolled locations with just a skeleton crew and the film’s young actors, the slow-simmering tale brims with an abundance of space — physical space that engulfs Ruffin’s diminutive Milo in increasingly isolating tableaux, and emotional space that pays off with surprisingly tragic poignancy in the film’s final act.
Brutally unflinching and melancholic, the film brings Milo’s affliction full circle as it reveals the source of his bloody fixation. It achieves a transcendent note as it lays out the grand plan he’s been orchestrating all along to find peace not only for himself but for the people he loves — requiem for the tortured vampires of stories past and for all those who find solace in their struggle.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart, West L.A.