There’s a reductive way to talk about The Transfiguration – freshman writer/director Michael O’Shea’s powerfully grimy entry into the NYC splatter canon – that’s also unavoidable. After all, this author was describing it to others as “Abel Ferrara’s Let the Right One In” upon exiting the initial screening at 2017’s SXSW Film Festival. It’s a picture that doesn’t just proudly wear its influences on its sleeve, but also inserts them into the actual text, as a young Far Rockaway murderer (Eric Ruffin) hordes crudely labeled VHS tapes of vampire classics such as Near Dark (’87) and Fright Night (’85). From those fuzzy, dubbed copies, he cobbles together a personalized mythology, which he uses to help define his own violent existence. It’s an unnerving take on the tried and tired serial killer coming of age fable that simultaneously comments on how a certain subsection of unstable cinema fans suffer from a unique sort of confirmation bias, clinging to the works that feel most “realistic” while discarding others which fly in the face of their in-progress narrative.
O’Shea’s vision is based in the pre-gentrification New York genre cinema of William Lustig and Larry Cohen – cheap thrills that were not so subtly about how the city became a societal prison, divided by class and privilege, for many folks who called the Big Apple home. Even those directors’ most fantastical films, such as Maniac Cop (’88) or Q: The Winged Serpent (’82), owned subtexts regarding men who fed off the fear and desperation of the metropolis’ solitary members. Milo (Ruffin) may be the loneliest boy in New York – far away from the Wall Street Brokers who create capitalist-driven collapses, yet a few stories above groups of bullies who call him “freak” and take turns trying to pin the kid to the cracked concrete and piss on his plain grey tees. While the Disneyland of post-Giuliani Times Square has become the most iconic NYC image since 9/11 – the city standing together strong while corporations slowly rob it of any discernible identity – O’Shea’s obviously much more interested in those living inside the cracks of New York’s forgotten places. “Whatever shit you worried about, there’s people out there that done a million times worse,” Milo’s PTSD-afflicted brother Lewis (Aaren Morten) tells him at one point, and the seemingly shallow platitude doubles as the movie’s fatalist mantra, our guide’s predatory nature as much a survival instinct as it is a morbid fascination with drinking his white victims’ blood.
Employing a “live-shooting” style akin to Joshua Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed (’08), O’Shea documents Milo’s sad existence as he floats about Queens, eyeing men at urinals, and playing dead on desolate sidewalks so that bums can get just close enough for him to stab them in the throat and slurp their brown plasma. The compositions are often wide and distant; a product of necessity (it’s difficult to imagine a production this tiny obtaining permits to shoot on these streets) that transmutes into a brilliant stylistic choice, as we get to witness just how small this skinny black boy is even in his own neighborhood. Ruffin’s physical performance is roughly half posture and half thousand-yard gaze. At times, O’Shea’s aesthetic remoteness feels like he’s protecting the audience, as we don’t want to get too close to Milo. Because even if we hadn’t seen the kid slit another human’s throat, there’s something distinctly “off” about his mere presence. When combined with O’Shea’s naturalistic perusing of these brick and mortar shelters, the entire endeavor often becomes no different than one of the nature videos the carnivorous child studies while alone in his room – a cunning predator hiding in plain sight amongst his peers.
Just as John McNaughton teased an impossible redemption story in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (’86) that involved a wide-eyed white girl, The Transfiguration introduces Sophie (Chloe Levine) and we instantly see where the story is going (or, at least we think we do). However, O’Shea brilliantly decides to make the attraction between these two misfits less about love, and more about the pain they recognize in one another. From the moment Milo invites Sophie over, she knows there’s something strange about the boy. But they’re both products of lost parents and resulting environmental abuse – the fractured remnants of former lives somehow managing to restructure into actual people before each other’s eyes. In most horror movies, this meet cute nonsense would grate, but there’s an organic tenderness to the way their bond grows through slight gestures, such as refusing to wallow in each other’s misery, and instead sharing their respective interests together (a running Twilight joke would become too precious if it weren’t so real). Ruffin and Levine are incredibly talented young actors, mining stolen glances and hand holding for much more than the usual YA romance. There’s a chemistry here that’s as real as the city that’s buzzing around them, and it’s a wonder to behold.
Nevertheless, none of the sweetness Milo and Sophie experience dilutes the overall grim tone, as we’re treated to hypnotic remembrances revolving around the loss of Milo and Lewis’ mother. Those looking for a conventional horror picture in The Transfiguration may be sorely disappointed, as O’Shea zeroes in on the devastating nature of death with a rather astute eye. As much as Milo’s wrestling with his literal bloodthirsty nature, vomiting the remnants of his victims almost as quickly as he consumes them, he’s still just a kid who lost his parents well before their time. Where the movie slightly stumbles is trying to connect the two in a sort of “origin story” form – opting for explanation over mystery, and unfortunately dulling Milo’s story ever so slightly.
In Christianity, The Transfiguration describes an event reported in the New Testament where Jesus is transformed into a being of radiant glory upon a mountain (depicted in the last work by Italian Renaissance High Master, Raphael). While no such miracle can be found within O’Shea’s picture, the title could speak more toward how two people’s respective soulful gloom can touch, and whatever minute amount of hope discovered in one another can eclipse the seemingly unshakable sadness that consumes wayward souls. Though the film is drenched in sociological despair, The Transfiguration ends on a note that delightfully twists any semblance of optimism it offers into a bittersweet coda of Milo’s invention. This may be O’Shea’s greatest accomplishment in a microbudget wonder that will no doubt stand tall amongst its influences for years to come. The Transfiguration offers zero easy answers, because there are none when it comes to mental instability and coping with grief. What remains are the tiny slivers of light that emanate from those who design their own coping mechanisms, no matter how “sick” they may seem to those who don’t share the same existential plight.
The Transfiguration is out now on VOD/Netflix via Strand Releasing.