Michael O'Shea isn't afraid to wear his influences on his sleeve. It seems safe to assume the writer-director of The Transfiguration is a fan of vampire cinema. From visual references to classics including Nosferatu and The Lost Boys to direct namechecks for a host of vampire movies including Near Dark, Martin and even the Twilight saga, The Transfiguration isn't so much a vampire film as 100 vampire films within a vampire film – even the cameos are referential: among the teen protagonist's unfortunate victims are Lloyd Kaufman, longtime head of schlock film studio Troma and Larry Fessenden, director of the cult New York vampire film Habit (1995).
Teenager Milo (Eric Ruffin), you see, is a vampire. Or at least Milo is obsessed with vampire culture, and has convinced himself he's a vampire. As a result of which he's developed a rather anti-social habit of stabbing fellow New York residents and drinking their blood. The fact he tends to be made sick by the blood suggests he's not the best vampire, while the fact he appears to be about four feet-tall with the kind of backpack a primary school pupil would carry their packed lunch in, permanently strapped to his back, also ensures that he's not the most fearsome vampire to look at either.
When a new girl moves in next door (Chloe Levine's Sophie) and attempts to befriend Milo, we reasonably expect her to be lunch before too long. But we learn she's an orphan too, and she's a vampire fan, albeit of the Twilight type, much to Milo's distaste.
For Milo, vampires are all about the worst of humanity, himself included.
Nonetheless, the two start to form a bond, and Milo's life becomes perhaps a little less tortured – he even begins to forget to drain the blood of his victims as prescribed by the circled dates on his calendar. We learn a little more about what may have sent the youngster down his troubled path. His parents are dead, he's bullied by the gangs on his New York housing project, his brother is a shell of a man since his time in the army. We even start to wonder if his vampire persona could be some form of self-preservation – the undead, as Milo points out, can't commit suicide.
O'Shea hasn't crafted a typical horror film here. The brooding pace and shaky, handheld camera is more arthouse introspection than slasher frenzy, and while there is violence, it's accompanied not by jumps and screams, but by an unsettling ambient electronic drone.
The film's soundtrack, as well as its desolate urban landscapes and Ruffin's visually incongruous vampire, has more than a little in common with Ana Lily Amirpour's genre-defying 2014 vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a movie O'Shea says he hasn't seen in full, though he concedes from what he has seen that there could be grounds for comparison.
As the film builds towards the transfiguration promised in the title we're never quite sure what to expect, such is the indifference with which Ruffin plays his part. Will he be humanised by his relationship with Sophie? Will his wishes be granted as he turns into a full-blown vampire for real? I'll leave you to find out for yourself, it might not be what you're expecting.