The directorial debut of self-described computer repairman Michael O’Shea is a New York horror movie that draws clear inspiration for what is arguably the greatest New York horror movie, Larry Fessenden’s Habit. Titled The Transfiguration, the film finds Milo (Eric Ruffin), an awkward 14-year-old who is obsessed with vampires, trying to find undeniable proof that he is, in fact, a creature of the night.
A perfect mixture of inner-city coming-of-age romance and grim tragedy, The Transfiguration utilizes the tone and aesthetic of independent films from the 1990s New York scene to tell a story that feels strangely specific in spite of the fact that it references dozens of other movies. Since Milo is obsessed with vampires — creatures that exist in fiction — his explanations for why he believes in them are based solely on films he has seen. Despite frequent references to everything from Let the Right One In to Near Dark, the film never ends up transitioning into meta territory. Even an ongoing joke subtly comparing Milo’s romance with Sophie (Chloe Levine) to the iconic duo in Twilight feels extremely authentic in the context of the film.
While the budding romance of two teenage misfits is charming, and even uplifting at times, The Transfiguration remains a shocking, bleak, and occasionally upsetting horror movie. Every time it appears as though O’Shea is going to loosen his stranglehold, he ups the ante once more, eventually guiding the audience through one of the boldest home invasion sequences in recent memory — a moment that truly changes the entire tone of the film.
Nuanced performances from Ruffin and Levine provide the film with an honesty that is often missing from gruesome genre fare, and their characters’ perspectives on the world around them perfectly clash with that of the gang members who get their kicks from harassing the kids at every available moment. But even though The Transfiguration is filled with most of the archetypal characters that appear in gritty, New York indies, the film never feels stereotypical because the relationship between Milo and Sophie is so genuine and awkward that it makes the world around it feel all the more realistic.
It’s a harsh and often grim look at the devastating realities of life — told through the unique lens of an urban vampire movie — but it manages to include just enough moments of levity for the result to be digestible. The film hits all of the right notes and proves that despite being a bit older than most first-time filmmakers, O’Shea clearly has a bright future. The Transfiguration is an instant classic in the vampire realm and will not disappoint fans of the subgenre.
The Transfiguration recently screened at SXSW 2017.