The Transfiguration. 2016. Directed & Written by Michael O’Shea.
Starring Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine, Phyillicia Bishop, Dangelo Bonneli, Andrea Cordaro, Larry Fessenden, Danny Flaherty, Anna Friedman, Jose Ignacio Gomez, Lloyd Kaufman, & JaQwan J. Kelly.
Transfiguration Productions
Not Rated. 97 minutes.
Drama/Horror

★★★★1/2

Disclaimer: The following article contains several spoilers.
Go check this film out. Then come back, discuss.
Lest ye be spoiled, forever!

Transfiguration 1Vampire films are a dime a dozen. Much like the zombie, the concept of vampires has been overused. That being said, there are many incredible works within these sub-genres. Although seeing as how the horror industry’s inundated with their presence, you’ve got to dig to find the real gold. The Transfiguration is one of those exciting, sharp needles in the haystack.
As a white man, there are issues in this film I’m not qualified to speak on with any authority. One of which is black mental health. However, the broader concept of mental health still applies. This is the most effective part of Michael O’Shea’s film: it takes a cold, hard look at things not everybody wants to see. In a coming of age story constantly flirting with the idea of the supernatural lurking on the periphery of our normal lives, O’Shea has focused on issues important to all of society, ones we’ve largely ignored up until now.
In a way, O’Shea also challenges us to consider what it is that makes a vampire film, how we perceive the constructs of the sub-genre. We come to question whether or not the protagonist, Milo (Eric Ruffin), is actually a creature of the night, or if it’s all in his head. The line between reality and the darkest of fantasy blurred. A frothy cocktail of mental health issues, the possibility of the supernatural, alienation and isolation, as well as the coming of age of a damaged young man whose entire environment feels geared towards denying him any escape from the psychological violence with which he’s been afflicted.
Transfiguration 2There’s a stigma of mental health in society in general. Even in 2017, particularly in certain communities and circles there’s a lingering idea that mental illness = psychotic, crazy, untrustworthy, weak. I don’t want to dive in on black mental health, not qualified. What I can speak to re: Milo is the mental health of men, how mental illness is perceived in conjunction with the constructions of masculinity. The other kids, the drug dealer and his friends, they see Milo as weird. It’s maybe his older brother Lewis (Aaron Cliften Moten) whose refusal to discuss anything of emotion stunts the kid the worst.
Milo lives at home with his brother. Just the two of them. Gradually, we discover a loss by suicide in the family. Before we ever figure it out fully, this loss is symbolised by a closed door in their apartment. Milo stares at it, a feeling of morbid awe accompanies the image. We can see he doesn’t push his older brother to talk about his feelings, any of the things he does in his room, such as indulging in vampire lore and movies, homemade VHS tapes of Lost BoysFright Night, right up to Dracula Untold.
And here’s where the general metaphor of mental illness kicks in.
Like many who suffer with mental health issues, Milo is tucked away immersed in fantasy, the symbol of his separation is the literal doorway of his room. Where he’s cut off, where, generally, Lewis will not go. Within that disconnect, Milo becomes lost in his fantasy. Whether he’s a vampire is left until the end. Before that, the mental illness is merely a metaphor, an allegory in vampire form. By the end it’s more than obvious what’s happened, even if there’s no expository dialogue spelling it out. Our protagonist has suffered the pains of faux-masculinity, of being forced into a delusion that ultimately encompasses his entire life.
The most telling moment is a scene where Milo tries to move somewhat towards a genuine conversation with Lewis, who responds only with a form of denial, a blind acceptance without understanding the consequences and a parallel to the way violent male behaviour is often condoned, telling his kid brother:

You do what you have to do. No matter what. Whatever it is youre doin‘, theres someone doina whole lot worse.”

Transfiguration 4While Sophie (Chloe Levine) represents an equally damaged soul, she’s also one who hasn’t descended into madness like Milo. Hard as her life is, she manages to at least get away, or she faces the prospects of getting away from the abusive grandfather, the boys in the neighbourhood – essentially, away from the toxic men around her. Sophie also illustrates that women clearly are not exempt from the violence and sexual abuse of men, as if we didn’t know already. But this movie is specifically aimed at the unforgiving culture of masculinity that doesn’t allow young men, or any men for that matter, to discuss their issues openly, without fear of judgement, of ridicule. So whereas Sophie manages to find a way free in the end, Milo cannot escape the fragile constructions of masculinity, as his vampire delusion leads him towards tragedy.
O’Shea does well by blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, though. The edges disappear, leaving the viewer wondering at times if this is a choice, a delusion, or if Milo’s been infected by some undead creature wandering the city. Because in between his hunting for blood, there’s a whole world of urban decay, a modern Gothic landscape across the city surrounding him. He experiences all the socioeconomic pitfalls of living in a forgotten neighbourhood, where people buy drugs and get shot in the basement of apartment buildings, and likely much, much worse. At one point, a white guy’s racist assumption that any black kid in that neighbourhood out to know where the drugs are leads to this same guy becoming a victim of crime himself. A self-fulfilling prophesy which ultimately, and in such a dark way, comes back onto Milo, tragedy of Greek proportions. Although it’s not quite fate which brings it full circle, as we see in the finale.
Transfiguration 3Every so often, a horror movie like The Transfiguration comes along speaking so loud, so proud in a unique way that it helps the whole genre. In this case, also the vampire sub-genre. There are plenty of great horror movies out there, despite what people who don’t dig horror will try telling you. This film simply has the transcendental quality certain films in the genre have which cross a genre gap, speaking to universal ideas independent of any genre. This is something every horror needs to attempt. But when one does, succeeding, it’s special.
O’Shea does a fantastic job at playing with that blurred line from fantasy to reality, to the point the viewer will question if Milo is a serial killer or a genuine vampire. He doesn’t load us down with exposition. Rather, he chooses to give us gradual, short motions from scene to scene building a sense of who Milo is, how he got here, where he’s headed, until the various strands of his life come together in a blend of terror.
Stuck between a brutal reality surrounded by death and crime and violence, Milo is forced into a fantastical headspace. From the dealers on the street harassing him, to the wall of videotapes he studies religiously, his life is a constant battle between these elements. This is the story of many out there, young men trapped by the social constructs of their gender. Milo is a microcosm. The longer men ignore other men’s struggles with mental illness, the more people will die. And that’s not a figurative concept, that’s reality.

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