Mumblegore is a relatively new term that has blossomed with the low budget, yet character-driven, indie horror films that have been released in the past decade. It was born out of the Mumblecore genre, introduced in 2002 with films such as Funny HA HA (2002) by Andrew Bujalski and Puffy Chair (2005) by the Duplass Brothers. Mumblegore takes that genre into the realm of horror, with films such as You’re Next (2011), The Sacrament (2013), and V/H/S (2012) as prime examples. Due to lower budgets and almost no studio pressure, these films are much more experimental. A few directors and writers have been credited with the birth and rise of this strange subgenre. Adam Wingard (You’re Next, V/H/S), Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), and Ti West (House of the Devil, The Sacrament) are just a few of the people working to create strange yet terrifying stories that push the boundaries of horror.
I want to expand the definition, which is my goal with this column. I will try to venture outside of those well-known directors and scour the corners of the Internet to expand the idea of Mumblegore.
In recent iterations of this column, I’ve discussed perhaps the more well-known Mumblegore films, if well-known is a term you can apply to the subgenre. From Creep to Lace Crater to We Are Not Cats, it’s been a deep dive into some of the oft-cited pieces of Mumblegore. However, in honor of teen horror month here at Nightmare On Film Street, I’m reaching into a lesser discussed film about troubled teens and vampires. That’s right; I’m talking about Michael O’Shea’s feature film debut, The Transfiguration (2015).
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“The Transfiguration is an effective, moody vampire movie with shocking violence, all made with a low-budget—which is the Mumblegore way.”
Milo (Eric Ruffin, The Good Wife) is a 15-year-old kid growing up in the projects of Far Rockaway in Queens, New York. He lives with his older brother, Lewis (Aaron Moten, The Night Of), a veteran with depression and PTSD that he masks by watching TV on the couch all day. Their apartment is rundown and is accustomed to gang violence; they are a side effect of gentrification, pushed to the side and forgotten in the name of what someone declares “progress.” Milo is alienated and bullied, until he meets a similar outcast, Sophie (Chloe Levine, The Ranger). She moves into the same apartment with her abusive grandfather and uses sex and alcohol to somehow escape his wrath. Milo and Sophie find solace in one another and they begin the typical summer-in-the-city teen romance. But, there’s a dark secret underneath it all.
Milo is absolutely obsessed with vampires. He watches vampire movies nonstop. He devours vampire fiction. He believes he himself is a vampire. He keeps a notebook of rules for himself where he can record how often he needs to feed and how to make sure he only kills those who deserve it. Milo roams the dark streets of New York City, searching for victims and drinking their blood, convinced he needs it to survive. But is he really a vampire or a very young serial killer? O’Shea never really gives us an answer, but that is the beauty of this film.
The Transfiguration is an effective, moody vampire movie with shocking violence, all made with a low-budget—which is the Mumblegore way. In an interview with Birth. Movies. Death., O’Shea talked about where the idea for the film came from and simply said, “I’d failed to raise money for a slasher that was more expensive, and was trying to come up with an idea for a cheap horror movie.” Sometimes it’s that straightforward. However, despite it being O’Shea’s idea for a cheaper movie, that doesn’t take away from the film’s emotional impact. While there wasn’t a big budget for multiple gory kills or practical effects, O’Shea was still able to create a story that weaves teenage angst, gentrification, and horror into one disturbing package.
O’Shea set The Transfiguration in New York City, a place known for glitz, glam, and grim. It is a city with two faces, one full of wealth and one full of poverty. He grew up in the same housing project that he set his film, so despite being an older white man telling the story of a young black boy, he does have experience living a life of poverty. “I wanted to explore two New Yorks – the sad, lonely, barren, run-down New York, and the gentrified New York that’s slowly overtaking it. That’s where Milo goes hunting; where all the bikes and baby strollers are,” O’Shea said to Birth. Movies. Death. Milo’s victims are those who are inadvertently making life for the less-privileged more difficult. While O’Shea wanted to explore both sides of the city, his main focus is a poor neighborhood affected by violence, especially gang violence.
“The Transfiguration is a testament to the core of Mumblegore’s emotional impact”
As Milo is struggling with his bloodlust and systemic poverty, he is also stuck between different concepts of masculinity and what it means to be a man. First, there is the gang that lurks outside of his building, harassing him every day for being weird and goading him into joining their ranks. It is almost expected of Milo to join this makeshift brotherhood due to where he lives and his poverty. Their exaggerated machismo and violent aggression awaits Milo whenever he leaves the building. He tries to tune them out as he heads to perform his own acts of violence to feed his supposed need for blood.
Then, there is his brother Lewis, Milo’s sole caretaker since their mother committed suicide. He was once in a gang and now continuously reminds Milo to stay away from them. Lewis wants to conform to a more traditional view of masculinity, especially through “chivalry” towards women. However, Lewis has his own struggles as he copes with PTSD and depression after his time as a soldier. He wants Milo to have a better life but doesn’t really know how to provide it outside of lectures and stern words. Milo is stuck to interpret these different representations and manifestations of masculinity through the lens of a boy who is obsessed with watching vampire movies.
There is also a metanarrative running through The Transfiguration about fan culture and obsession, particularly within the horror community. I myself am a huge vampire movie fan, preaching the good word of 30 Days of Night (2007), Blade (1998), Dracula (1992), and other films of various quality. All horror fans have a subgenre or films they champion with their whole hearts, which is what makes this community so amazing; we’re all so passionate. However, what happens when that obsession is taken too far? The Transfiguration posits one version of that obsession taken to an extreme by a kid who is trying to figure himself out.
The Transfiguration is a testament to the core of Mumblegore’s emotional impact and how a good story doesn’t always need a huge budget. It is a deeply disturbing and upsetting film about growing up and obsession. Even without the vampire element, The Transfiguration would be a harrowing look at youth growing up in a rapidly-gentrifying New York City. O’Shea does a lot with his low-budget, creating a story that discusses poverty, masculinity, and fan culture all at once. While it may not be as violent as other vampire films, it is an achievement in Mumblegore and indie horror filmmaking. If you’re looking for a new vision of the vampire genre that goes from emotional impact rather than blood, The Transfiguration is a must-see.
The Transfiguration is currently available to stream on Shudder. Have you seen this film before? What did you think? Let us know on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!