Michael O’Shea’s stunningly original debut is a rallying cry to low-budget genre devotees everywhere: a clever, understated and socially aware horror strung together on a nothing budget, to maximum effect.
The Transfiguration takes roughly 90% of its classic horror callbacks and direct on-screen references from vampire movies, and at the heart of its own central drama, it kind of is one. A troubled young outcast, at the very fringes of wider society, cast aside by a inescapable thirst for blood. Sound familiar? And yet, Michael O’Shea’s winning new take is something wholly and unfathomably different in almost every sense of the word.
Probably the single, most killer twist of the lot is that O’Shea’s lead isn’t some cape-wearing 19th-century aristocrat; or a black duffle-coat-laden day-walker; or a red-eyed, sparkly skinned emo kid that can run really fast. There’s no fancy Victorian imagery, no wooden stakes or cloves of garlic; Milo (Eric Ruffin) is a struggling inner-city kid, who obsesses over vampire movies, and soon finds himself gradually turning into one, more in the mental sense than the physical.
Through a blossoming romance with fellow orphan Sophie (Chloe Levine), he starts to uncover the boundaries between the harsh realities of the outside world, and his own self-built fantasy, opening up into much more of a morality play than an out-and-out horror. O’Shea questions the real-world implications of the vampire lore we’ve all grown up understanding, unravelling, above all else, what it means to take a life for real.
And aside from a slightly heavy-handed (but entirely witty) takedown of the film’s most obvious relation – Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight – The Transfiguration is so beautifully built and signposted throughout, you’d be hard-pushed to notice any of its mainline doctrine. O’Shea knits in everything from genuine social and human drama, to seriously riveting moral discussion without any sense of sugar-coating or even so much as a feeling that we are ever being preached to.
Ruffin is about as understated as leads come, just as desperate to curl into the background of the movie as he is to tell Milo’s story, shunning sentimentality for something far, far more difficult: real, earnest and delicately strung emotion. It’s much less a hero’s journey as it is a carefully sculpted portrait of a young person at odds with their place in not just society but in the world itself too. And in caving in the walls of hard-nosed genre, and combining it with our own everyday reality, O’Shea makes The Transfiguration as much a commentary on fanaticism as fantasy itself.
It’s a hard movie to sell; too deep and patient for a balls-out genre crowd, but likewise too dark and grounded in the horror world to be taken purely on dramatic merit; The Transfiguration has an unquestionably bizarre mixture of influences and on paper, really shouldn’t work. But in packing his own sensitive script and direction with not just soulful performances but a real thirst for understanding the very inner-workings of something as ingrained as vampire lore, O’Shea delivers one of the most fascinating and conversation-worthy debuts of the year, hands down.
The Transfiguration is out in UK cinemas from Friday.