I have seen an abundance of COVID films in the wake of 2020’s pandemic, and few, if any, have felt as vital as The Harbinger. With the rage at so many “empty spaces” and lost souls pumping through its veins, this is a film that directly tackles the fears and frustrations heard round the world. Every bit of that paranoia, as well as all the unknowns around coronavirus is channeled through writer/director Andy Mitton’s genius horror lens. Some of the imagery in this film has haunted me for days since watching my screener.
Deep in the heart of the pandemic, Mavis (Emily Davis, Cryptozoo, Toy Story 4) is living alone in her apartment in Queens. Haunted by horrifying visions and recurring nightmares and with her family on lockdown in Seattle, Mavis has run out of places to turn. On the flip side, Monique (Gabby Beans) is currently isolated in her own little bubble with cancer-stricken father Ronald (Raymond Anthony Thomas, Shutter Island, Isn’t It Romantic), and her worrisome, super cautious brother, Lyle (Myles Walker). Reliant on no-contact deliveries, the strength of the family’s relationship is incredibly heartwarming. Out of the blue, Mo receives a phone call from an old roommate who once saved her life: Mavis. Despite overt protestation from Lyle and gentle begging from her father, Mo ultimately decides that the best course of action is to meet up with Mavis at her Queens apartment. With gloves, extra masks, and hand sanitizer in tow, Mo drives off toward an uncertain future.
An initial reunion between Mavis and Mo carries with it an aura of uncertainty that anyone will relate to, particularly being fresh off one of the wildest times in recorded history. At first, the two girls keep their masks on, but quickly decide to shed them as they have both been living out similar lifestyles completely cut off from the world. They are simply trying to go back to being “normal people,” which is of course easier said than done. Their easy vibe of friendship returns as they make a go at normalcy; however, the weight of the reason Mo has come all this way is constantly at the forefront. Mavis is freaked out beyond words, often wrapped up in dreams “for days,” and even when she wakes up, the world is practically crumbling down around her. “This pandemic is the cherry on the shit sundae” has to be one of the most relatable lines of dialogue I have ever heard.
It does not take long for the film to introduce its own eerie mythology, initially courtesy of the oppressive nightmarish landscape that places an icy grip over Mo from the very first night she sleeps in Mavis’s apartment. They seem to burrow their way into the deepest parts of one’s psyche—instead of Freddy Kreuger, the nightmares are plagued by a terrifying figure donned in a Plague Doctor mask. The moment they peak down from the ceiling, I could practically feel The Harbinger turn instantly iconic. Mo does not want to admit she is also facing the same nightmare-haunting as Mavis, but soon there is no denying it. A video chat with a demonologist unfortunately confirms the worst fears of both women.
The film’s signature villain—dubbed by the demonologist as an unpublished myth known as “The Harbinger”—feeds off the isolation of the pandemic. It burrows into one’s dreams, breaks one’s will, and “takes you” when it becomes strong enough. The Harbinger snatches the victim from existence, removing all memories and traces of the individual from their loved ones. If the very thought of one’s life being meaningless is a fear, The Harbinger preys on it with ease. This concept of a curse that violently tears the victim from the world as they know it chilled me to the bone. Is there any way to defeat The Harbinger once and for all to save themselves from certain death? Racing against an unseen clock, Mo and Mavis could be in for the scariest nights of their lives!
When jump scares do arrive (especially the final one), I was legitimately shaken at their effectiveness. By the time The Harbinger blasts through to the home stretch, I became so anxious that I was thrown off and shocked when the endgame became clear. Both lead women are terrific playing in Mitton’s sandbox, but Gabby Beans ropes in sympathy and goodwill for her performance as Mo. It does take a little while for Mitton to establish the two friends separately before bringing them together in Queens. However, with characterization this strong, I did not care. I kept thinking that even watching this movie could potentially make me susceptible to The Harbinger if this curse was actually real—the sheer fact that it even popped into my mind is further evidence of the film’s lasting power. Not since The Ring have I seen a horror movie that taps into a real-world element and has me questioning my own sanity in the process. The Harbinger may serve to be Andy Mitton’s magnum opus, or perhaps it is simply another in a long line of impressive feature films for the seasoned director. If we can still manage to tackle a subject as already-tired as the pandemic in ways that scare and titillate unsuspecting audience members, there may truly be hope left for exciting, risk-taking genre filmmaking.
The Harbinger screened at 2022’s Fantasia Film Festival.