By Scott Dorward
The Transfiguration (USA, 2016)
“I think it starts with drinking blood.”
Does a vampire film need to have a vampire in it? What is a vampire anyway? Is it an undead monster or simply someone who drinks human blood? These are the kinds of questions that haunt Milo, the protagonist of The Transfiguration. After watching the film, they’re kind of haunting me too.
As the film opens, we encounter Milo in a toilet cubicle, drinking the blood of a man whose throat he has just slashed. This is not the genteel fang-bite and supping of a classic vampire. Blood pulses out of knife wound and Milo slurps it noisily. Later, he vomits it back up.
Milo is an unlikely predator. Short and slightly built for a boy in his late teens, he is entirely unprepossessing. His manner is quiet and affectless, and he speaks in the same matter-of-fact tone whether discussing shopping, his favourite films, or murder. If anyone notices him at all, it is to call him a freak and push him around. Milo has a dark past, possibly involving animal cruelty, and those around him hate him for it. Only his brother Lewis, who he lives with, seems to tolerate Milo, and even their relationship feels fragile.
Milo’s life becomes even more complicated when he meets Sophie, a white girl around his age, who lives in his predominantly black neighbourhood. She is also a social outcast in her own way and is drawn to Milo’s strange, offhand interest in her. When Milo discovers that Sophie cuts herself, his only reaction is to try to suck the wound. While she finds his morbid obsessions repellently weird at times, some invisible bond of shared trauma and tragedy keeps pulling them back together.
Sophie is intrigued by Milo’s obsession with vampires. The two debate over the nature of vampires, with Milo presenting his arguments for “realistic” vampires while Sophie tries to convince him to read Twilight and watch True Blood. Meanwhile, Milo continues his secret hunts.
Everything comes to a head as Sophie stumbles across evidence of Milo’s true nature and Milo pushes himself into acts that scare even himself. The stage is set for blood and tragedy.
As well as being a potent portrayal of a couple of alienated misfits, The Transfiguration is also a philosophical exploration of vampire lore. Milo keeps journals filled with analyses of classic vampire stories and films. He expounds upon these to Sophie, trying to get to the core of what a vampire actually is. Sophie initially takes all this as the kind of obsessive fandom that fills the lives of teenage boys. Instead, this is Milo trying to understand himself.
Ultimately, Milo is a serial killer, not a vampire. While he has wrapped himself in comforting lore, creating rituals for himself, the hints at his backstory suggest a history of animal cruelty and troubling behaviour that suggest a very human kind of monstrousness. Maybe pretending to be a vampire allows him to justify these impulses to himself, or maybe he is genuinely delusional. I suspect the former, given his degree of self-analysis.
For all his strange mannerisms and murderous nature, Milo is an oddly sympathetic monster. While The Transfiguration never attempts to excuse or downplay the things he does, he seems gripped by compulsions he tries to fight. More importantly, his relationship with Sophie and the way he tries to care for her in his own broken way humanises him, defying us to care for him too.
The ambiguity of people who think themselves vampires is not a new theme in either cinema or fiction. The Transfiguration is canny enough to namecheck George Romero’s classic Martin, a film whose protagonist exists in a similar grey area. Perhaps less well-known is Elizabeth Engstrom’s remarkable novel, Black Ambrosia, about a troubled young woman who seems to will herself into vampirehood, or maybe just into psychosis.
The Transfiguration takes its time drawing the viewer in. People looking for a traditional horror film may be disappointed. Apart from the bloody opening scene, the first hour of the film is fairly slow, with lots of static shots of characters talking. The majority of these scenes are awkward conversations between Milo and either Sophie or Lewis, skirting around the horrors that define Milo’s existence. While they build a sense of dread, they sometimes feel coy.
When violence erupts, however, The Transfiguration does not hold back. This is not cathartic bloodshed or anything the viewer can take pleasure in. It is realistic and uncomfortable, in keeping with the rest of the film.
Happily, the final act rewards the viewer’s patience. While it never bursts into dynamic action, it pulls together its strands nicely as Milo is forced to reconsider what he truly is. The resolution is emotionally complex and completely satisfying.
And, ultimately, The Transfiguration probably shouldn’t be judged as a traditional horror film. It is a character study, revealing the darkness and vulnerability lying within a very human monster. While it may not scare you enough to make you sleep with the lights on, you may still be awake at 3 AM, thinking about some of the questions it raises. And that’s a lot more than most horror films can offer.
A Final Note
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!