In Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration (2017), Milo is a smart, sensitive teen, but he’s got problems like an Afterschool Special. He’s an orphan, parents taken by separate, traumatizing circumstances, so now he lives alone with his older brother Lewis, their poor city neighborhood restlessly patrolled by gangs. He is friendless and bullied. His brother, who used to run with gang members himself, returned from military service abroad visibly depressed, self-medicating with isolation and TV. Forced into a furtive, sneak thief existence to survive, Milo also self-medicates, after a fashion.
Like many healthy people, Milo retreats into fantasy to map his way forward in real life. Like many hurting people, he imagines being able to hurt others instead. Where those compulsions meet, Milo plunges his trusty penknife. He has compulsory therapy, where an unseen, kind-yet-insistent woman asks him whether he’s been hurting animals. Milo tells her he thinks about it, but he isn’t acting on those thoughts, not anymore. We know that is only technically true, because the movie opens in a restroom stall, with Milo drinking the blood of a man he just killed. Sure, it’s a guy, not a squirrel, but you know better than that, Milo. It’s not a very gory scene – the struggle is already over, and all that’s left is for Milo to insistently slurp at the wound he made in the man’s throat. A man at the urinal believes he’s overhearing an illicit sexual act and hurries away in the attitude of someone about to fetch the nearest mall cop, but for all the overlap between sex and bloodletting in vampire lore, Milo pulls away from his victim more like a nursing child than an incubus. Something weirdly innocent still hangs about Milo when he watches himself in the bathroom mirror, washing his bloody lips, zipping his hoodie over the blood spatter at his collar — or if not innocent exactly, at least incipient.
Milo’s not at all a supernatural creature, but he’s working on it. I suppose he is a vampire insofar as he’s actually killing people and sucking their blood – although he retches it all back up, too, because his digestive system still considers him a human teenager. His room is a shrine to his obsession, with a cabinet of VHS spines telling the story of his self-education and a hidden cache nestled behind those tapes telling his own vampiric resume in the form of stolen cash and goods. He also keeps notebooks crammed with detailed notes from reading and analyzing vampire stories and lore, along with a calendar that keeps his vampiric needs on schedule. He supplements these studies with brutal footage of animal slaughters on the internet. Fair warning: you may have trouble eating a burger after watching Milo watch cows become meat. As he attends carefully to footage of wasps and spiders while eating Fruity Cheerios, you can almost see a wall of bricks being laid between Milo’s soul and his ability to empathize. Eric Ruffin’s understated performance walks a tricky tightrope keeping Milo human despite the character’s best efforts.
Things change for Milo when he encounters Sophie, a vulnerable girl in a strange place waiting alone for a broken elevator at night, which is kind of a metaphor for Sophie’s life so far. Also an orphan, she has come to live with her grandfather in Milo’s building. At first, it seems like Milo might prey on her, but through some strange chemistry, he ends up helping her with her suitcases instead. This is also a good metaphor for what their relationship becomes. Later, he will spy her having sex with a group of guys in a field — sweet summer child that I am, it’s not clear to me whether this was prostitution or Sophie being self-destructive or being otherwise compelled, maybe protecting herself from rape by being cooperative, but it’s notable how easily they both shrug it off — and he reconnects with her shortly after, as she sits alone on an abandoned couch, cutting herself. (I love how O’Shea emphasizes the emptiness of Milo and Sophie’s world. So many of the shots, like this one, are panoramic abandonment and urban decay in the middle of the close population of the city.) When Milo asks if it hurts, Sophie thinks he’s talking about having sex; cutting is a release. It doesn’t even occur to her as something that would hurt.
Sophie wants to talk about suicide. Milo wants to talk about vampires. Sophie likes vampires like in Twilight and True Blood, but Milo wants less romantic stories: he names her Near Dark, Let the Right One In, Shadow of the Vampire, and Martin as good examples, stories where the vampires are more “realistic,” less supernatural, more like him. When Sophie tells Milo how a vampire in True Blood committed suicide by walking into the sun, Milo explains to her how suicide goes against the rules of being a vampire, and it’s subtly chilling that we know none of this is theoretical for Milo. These are moments where Milo gives strong indications he’s still looking at Sophie as a victim, but he keeps letting her slip away. For her part, Sophie may think she wants to die, but she has enough instinct for self-preservation to know the soft-spoken guy who shows you cattle slaughter on YouTube when you’re alone in his room might be bad news. Still, the self-destructive moths eventually stop dancing with their flames long enough to dance with each other. Through their relationship, we learn more about how Milo’s obsession with vampires began, and with each other’s unconditional affection, they both slowly start to thrive and face their demons. Milo’s relationship with his taciturn brother even begins to improve. It is as though he has gotten a transfusion of life itself. But he still clings to his rules. He still craves blood.
The Transfiguration works without the context of Let the Right One In, True Blood, Twilight, etc., but I like its substance as a response to the idealized vampiric relationships those works (and so many others) offer as romance. (I grant you Let the Right One In is not so clearly idealized, but it’s not straining to say it’s romanticized.) This may speak to my own biases. I subscribe to Hemingway’s sentiment that “if two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it,” and I believe that goes double when one of them is always potentially dinner. But it troubles me when abusive behavior is modeled as functional, even desirable, in fantasy when in the real world that kind of thinking gets people killed. I like that this movie shows predatory behavior is predatory behavior and doesn’t rehabilitate it with hand waves of immortal hunger and passionate intent. I am concerned that similarities of The Transfiguration to Let the Right One In in particular will repel potential audiences who think they’ve seen this before. It clearly takes notes from that film, even wants you to think of that film while you’re watching this one, but this is a different story. I think it might actually be a better story, and for all its deliberate semblance to and conversation with the real marquee names in the genre, it has a different world view than most of any them. Milo would probably say it’s more realistic.
What surprises me most about The Transfiguration, and one thing I actually really like about it, is that for all the bleakness and inhumanity unfolding in this urban cavity of crowded isolation, Milo and Sophie’s story is shot through with a stubborn insistence on redemption. In the end, there is a sneaky embrace of something that lands a lot closer to Stephanie Meyer’s Edward and Bella than John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Oskar and Eli. I’m not sure I’m entirely at peace with it, the dangerous idea that love can domesticate monsters, much less its attendant prongs idealizing codependence and suicide. That’s awful close to the kind of magical thinking I just lambasted as being behind shipping Sookie and Bill. But The Transfiguration still doesn’t fall into the trap of idealizing Milo or asking Sophie to. Milo is already a killer when we first meet him. He’s filling notebooks with the rules that circumscribe his life as a serial killer and vomiting the blood he cannot digest. That transfiguration is all but accomplished, and we will see him do worse and worse things with it. The real transfiguration we watch happen has to do with Milo and Sophie and the way Sophie gives Milo a taste of something he might just want to live for, or, failing that, stop killing for. Milo’s solution to this problem is still the violent, needlessly self-destructive act of a troubled boy, and it’s terrible no one intervened. But it’s as hopeful as it is heartbreaking when Milo’s classroom doodles change from bats and poison to repeated images of a bright and unrelenting sun. In a last note to Sophie, he chides her that, having kept his promise to read Twilight, he thought it sucked. “Not very realistic at all.” I’m with him on that. Milo’s tragedy is that the drive consuming him was as much a fantasy as Twilight, but he couldn’t see it, even in the clear light of day.
The Transfiguration is currently streaming on Netflix.
If Angela were an aspiring vampire, she’d model herself on Julian Sands in A Tale of a Vampire and just hang out in libraries looking tragic.
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