Originally published on August 4, 2017. The Transfiguration is now available on Amazon Prime’s streaming service.
Overview: A black teenager with an irresistible urge and a fascination with vampires meets a troubled girl who changes his self-perspective. Strand Releasing; 2017; NR; 97 minutes.
Lost Boy: When we first meet Milo (Eric Ruffin) he’s sucking blood out of a dead man’s neck in a subway bathroom stall. It’s a grisly first encounter that quickly forfeits any notion that this film will toy with the with ‘is he or isn’t he a vampire?’ Milo believes he’s a vampire, and that’s what pushes the plot forward. But what makes The Transfiguration ultimately so affecting, so discomforting is the why he believes that. Ruffin imbues Milo with a quiet strangeness, an offness that stems from his behavior of looking too long and saying too little. A friendless orphan, living with a shell-shocked and depressed older brother in an NYC ghetto, Milo’s sole escape is vampire movies, and the act of vampirism. He knows he’s odd, and he knows he’s wrong, evil even, but the arrival of abused teen Sophie (Chloe Levine) in his apartment complex, gives him an awareness that he can be something else too. The film makes no effort to dispel the fact that Martin and Let the Right One In play heavily on the film’s identity. But the film is more reverential than referential when it comes to the vampires of pop-culture. These films, and texts that Milo pours through are a way in which he can frame his identity, understand his own self-diagnosed monstrosity. Interestingly, the film he doesn’t reference is 1972’s Blacula, which saw the principle vampire Mamuwalde struggling to determine how his blackness fit in with the blackness of the 70s. Milo is on a similar journey, but while Blacula framed the new world the principle character found himself in as a black one, The Transfiguration’s world is subtextually white.
Let the Right One Out: Mental illness isn’t something that’s often discussed in black communities, particularly within low-income black communities, though they are often, as it would stand to reason, some of the communities most affected by mental illness. Milo’s life is dictated by mental illness, that which resides inside of him and that which has affected his entire family and community. His ever-angry father died of some undisclosed illness, his mother committed suicide, and his brother, a veteran, sits on the sofa and stares blankly at the television day in and day out amidst their unpacked, or maybe packed belongings. They’re all going nowhere. Milo has weekly meetings with a counselor, whose face we never see, and she poses vague, slightly accusatory questions that don’t seem to reach Milo in any way. When he meets Sophie, he notices the self-inflicted cuts on her arm. She describes them as a release. Later, after their relationship has developed with shy teenage sweetness, she asks Milo if he’s ever thought about killing himself. “I can’t kill myself,” he responds. On the surface, we take his response in hand with the fact that he believes himself to be a vampire, and thus unable to die. But further investigation suggests a deeper meaning to his response. Blacks are recorded as having the lowest suicide rate of any race in America. They live with their mental illness, find other releases, in lieu of their lack of resources, releases that sometimes make monsters.
A gang plagues Milo’s neighborhood, a gang his brother use to run with, but has since abandoned. These young men, ranging from early teens to mid-20s are extension of the evil often associated with American blackness. They are frightening, violent, gargoyles that hunch over curbs, and they are viewed entirely through Milo’s perspective, a perspective that has been taught by the world around him. They are the thing he fears, and it isn’t lost that the only black men that exist in this film are in gangs or unemployed depressives like his brother. From Milo’s perspective it seems like he only has two options. The white cops that Milo contends with after gang members brutally murder a wigger looking to score drugs (drugs they don’t sell) are faceless like his counselor. They speak in vague, accusatory terms, and when Milo snitches the cops drop him back off in front of the gang. One says “thanks for your help, Milo,” setting him up for further conflict. These cops are pitting black people against each other, making their views on their race clear and Milo is aware of his lack of humanity in their eyes, eyes that we as viewer are never permitted to see.
A Boy Walks Home Alone at Day: Director and screenwriter Michael O’Shea manages to capture the open-spaced loneliness of NYC, trading in the traditional crowds and city streets for weed-choked boroughs and the empty spaces that exist in one of the world’s most populated cities. He manages to make NY feel isolated, and as cut off from opportunity as Milo is. The tepid romance between Milo and Sophie becomes a bright spot in the film. For a long stretch of the film it seems that Sophie will save Milo, permitting for a white savior story that would feel thematically tone deaf, and allow for some unsettling undertones given the information we’ve gotten and Milo and his surroundings. But Milo’s obsession with vampires doesn’t lessen in the presence of Sophie, and he doesn’t stop killing either. Milo saves Sophie from loneliness, and the abuse of a system that too often works against the poor and abused. Milo saves Sophie because he sees that her whiteness permits her a freedom of living he can never know, a freedom found in America’s ability to heal her scars, deep but not deep enough to permanently damage her. A white person, regardless of their background is able to transform within the confines of America. While a black person, regardless of background and what they do or don’t do, will always be fixed as a black person and too often seen as something less than under the country’s wide lens.
Each of Milo’s victims is white. The spaces he kills them in are a subway station, beneath a bridge in Central Park, and in a home. These are the spaces where the news and media has told us that crime happens, that black people lurk and invade. These murders, particularly the last one in which Milo shockingly kills a child are gruesome. Admittedly there was a sense of betrayal and frustration on my part as a black viewer. I questioned what O’Shea, a white filmmaker, was trying to say about black people, which led to the analysis above. But there was a real struggle coming to grips with this final murder, and the film’s chilling and tragic ending that sees Milo brutally shot down by an unseen assailant, who is presumably a gang member that the cops set on a collision course with Milo. In the film’s final moments, the content of a letter Milo wrote to Sophie are revealed, and he explains that his victims, his interactions with the cops, and gang members were all an elaborate means to get himself killed, suicide by proxy in his ability to know exactly how the world is built against him. He concludes, “If you can only exist to hurt people, then maybe it’s best not to exist at all.” It’s important to remember that Milo is not a vampire in a supernatural sense, he is only a vampire in that he believes himself to be one. He doesn’t exist only to hurt people, and we see his kindness throughout the film, but society has taught him that he exists to hurt and be hurt. Perhaps we black men too frequently become the stereotype because so much of our lives are dictated by the expectations so much of America has for us to fulfill those stereotypes. Milo becomes a monster, even though no one is aware of his vampiric habits, and no one is aware that he was the one who killed those people, because society already believes him to be a monster. Thus the meaning of transfiguration becomes an ironic title, because within our current society blacks are not allowed to truly or fully transform into something better in America’s eyes, regardless of their actions. The idea that black people are a drain on American society, means we’re vampires whether we draw blood or not.
Overall: It would be permissible to misconstrue on the film and suggest cruel or even racist intentions, as I almost did, but that would be a loss. The Transfiguration isn’t easy, and it serves as a necessary reminder that horror shouldn’t be. It’s a hard look at the trials young black men must go through, and the seeming lack of options that exist. With exceptional performances by Ruffin and Levine, and a challenging subtext that initially elicits anger, before begging for a more intimate understanding, The Transfiguration is an exceptional addition to the canon of modern vampire films.
Featured Image: Strand Releasing