In contemporary New York, a bullied teenager is plagued by an apparent need to drink human blood — an instinct he fulfills without much trouble, leaving a modest trail of corpses in his wake, even as he forms a tentative bond with a lonely young neighbor. The debut feature from Brooklyn-born writer-director Michael O’Shea, “The Transfiguration” seemingly came from nowhere to secure a premiere in the Un Certain Regard strand at Cannes, generating buzz aplenty — but does it deliver? A morose tone and reluctance to give up the goods as a straight-up horror film may make distributors at the splat-tastic end of the genre spectrum wary. Outfits inclined towards arthouse slow-burners, however, should have an easier time packaging its nihilistic conclusions as existential depth.
There’s wearing your heart on your sleeve, and then there’s “The Transfiguration,” an addition to the extensive onscreen vampire canon whose influences are name-checked throughout. We can see that oddball loner Milo (Eric Ruffin) has a VHS collection stacked with the likes of “Dracula Untold,” “Thirst,” “Fright Night” and “The Lost Boys,” while he expresses disdain for the “Twilight” series (“it seems unrealistic”) despite not having seen any of it — a position he shares with many boys his age. The films he professes to most revere are likely shared as favorites by O’Shea himself: George A. Romero’s “Martin,” Kathryn Bigelow’s “Near Dark” and Tomas Alfredson’s “Let The Right One In.”
No explanation is offered for why a young teenage boy owns VHS tapes in this day and age; chalk it up to Milo’s general strangeness. Still, his old-school video library competes for his attention with YouTube videos of slaughterhouses, natural predators in action and “Faces Of Death”-style compilations. It’s kinda-sorta fun to be given so much insight into Milo’s creative process, but this risk of referencing such films as “Martin” and, in particular, “Let The Right One In” is that audiences may end up wishing they were watching these stone-cold modern classics instead of the plucky ersatz newcomer.
“The Transfiguration” certainly offers an effective opening gambit, whereby a curious bystander in a public restroom mistakes the sound of enthusiastic sucking in the stalls for a sexual encounter, but it’s something of a red herring. Vampirism onscreen has a rich metaphorical and literal relationship with sex, from Max Schreck looming over lace-clad ladies in in the 1920s to Vincent Gallo eating out (in both senses) a sexual partner in Claire Denis’ underrated “Trouble Every Day,” and so on. “The Transfiguration” belongs to the lineage of fanged villains that properly kicked off in the 1970s, where the metaphor ceases to focus so relentlessly on sex and begins to explore the realm of psychological disorder, disease and existential angst. Milo even walks past a public service poster at one point advising him to “Be HIV Sure.”
Where the film runs into some difficulty is in sustaining its initially very promising mood of incipient violence. Withholding revelations can be an effective strategy, but it’s perhaps slightly overused here, as the result feels ever so slightly dry. Not that vampire-themed films need be all heaving cleavages and fountains of corn syrup, but what subtler titles like “Let The Right One In” understand implicitly is that mood and tension will only carry an audience so far. Ideally, they also deserve a satisfying dramatic resolution that feels at once preordained and surprising, which is not achieved here.
Music from Margaret Chardiet and sound mixing from Gillian Arthur offer helpful assists throughout, with Milo’s infrequent shifts into “kill mode” telegraphed through bass-note buzzing and throbbing. This is particularly useful because Milo demonstrates the lack of affect that can characterize some forms of depression, in marked contrast to the charismatic, socially-adept psychopath with whom vampires are more often aligned. This is an interesting choice in theory, but it does make for a lack of light and shade, presenting his emotional state as something close to indifference for the majority of the runtime.
Production design from Danica Pantic is on point, with a fun Easter-egg detail in the form of drawings of vampires glimpsed periodically in Milo’s bedroom: the real-life artwork of a friend-of-a-friend of O’Shea, they are apparently partly what inspired him to make a vampire film in the first place.
There should be enough critical support for “The Transfiguration” to craft a quote-led campaign pitching it as elevated genre material. If this proves the case, cutting a deal shouldn’t be too onerous, but O’Shea’s debut, solid as it is, is unlikely to prompt the feeding frenzy among distributors that seemed possible prior to its premiere.