Along with Colin Minihan’s zombie redux It Stains the Sands Red, the vampire subgenre has also been given a makeover by writer/ director Michael O’Shea, in his debut feature The Transfiguration. This social-realist, coming of age tale of a teenage blood-sucker premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard category. O’Shea’s feature imbues loss, love and life within broken communities but before horror fans hiss and hold up crucifixes to such maudlin slush, The Transfiguration is neither mawkish Twilight silage, ostentatious renovation nor is it a love letter to the films that inspired it. It’s a potent horror masterpiece with harrowing drama, diverse characters and requisite bloodletting/sucking to quench the thirst of the gore hounds.
Fourteen year old Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a browbeaten introvert in crime-rife New York. Milo believes he is a vampire which remains open to interpretation. Not in the transmuting, cloak-twirling or twinkle skinned sense. Our hero walks in daylight, vomits blood after feeding and seems relatively normal when he’s not killing people or watching cats being murdered on youtube. Milo is also a vampire film fan, suggesting his hankering for the man-claret is psychological, while his VHS collection features classics like: Fright Night, The Lost Boys and Near Dark. We first encounter Milo mid-murder in a bathroom, before he meets troubled teen Sophie (Chloe Levin). A friendship flowers and The Transfiguration evolves from a post-modern self-referencing horror into a poignant character study with unsettling adolescent death, sex and parasites.
Milo’s rapport with Sophie is beset by bullies, deadbeats and drug dealers and O’Shea’s script doesn’t shy away from unveiling the “meat-hook realism” within its underprivileged community as a prevailing characteristic. Impoverished neighbourhoods house guns and narcotics while the subject of “vampirism is not religious. It’s like a disease.” Milo enlightens while leading people to their death. The multifaceted conflict persistently rivets while modifying the genre into something more akin to Mike Leigh than George Romero (although Martin is referenced as one of Milo’s favourites). Genre fans shouldn’t be deterred by the realism; The Transfiguration has plenty of fantastical bite. Vampires cash cheques, pay bills and request money orders but O’Shea’s film is essentially a horror, although I Daniel Blake is probably be more frightening than any of the classics in Milo’s collection.
The Transfiguration wields the heft of a hybrid masterpiece fusing socioeconomic subtexts and raw humanity with poverty, gangland murder, drug dealing and disease. Some of the latest zombie and vampire films suggest the subgenres are evolving into something more than template genre pictures. Modern viewers, especially fans, are now too desensitised to be scared by such fêted monster icons. Instead, their components are utilised to inform concepts in innovative stories to make horror/ cinema fans feel and deliberate instead of merely gasping at blood jets or jolting at a calibrated boo jumps. Horror is obviously incessantly evolving and FrightFest continues to source exceptional material by film-makers with their fingers on the lacerated pulse. The Transfiguration is, like its protagonist, so much more than its label may suggest but it remains a timeless and intoxicating example of progressive genre film-making.