The Harbinger, 2022.
Written and Directed by Andy Mitton.
Starring Gabby Beans, Emily Davis, Laura Heisler, Raymond Anthony Thomas, and Myles Walker.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, two friends are stalked in their dreams by an ancient plague demon.
Fresh off its world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, Andy Mitton’s The Harbinger is a cinematic monument to the bad old days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mitton takes his audience right back to March 2020, and he leaves his characters to swim in uncertainty, fear, and paranoia. For anyone who spent that month shrugging and going on vacation, The Harbinger will not land. For the rest of you, expect a surprisingly emotional experience. This movie is going to bring back all those bad feelings. Consider yourself warned.
It’s early spring in 2020, and COVID has begun its takeover of the United States. Monique (Gabby Beans) is quarantined in a house upstate with her brother Lyle (Myles Walker) and their elderly father (Raymond Anthony Thomas). In their isolation, the family has achieved a sense of relative safety from the virus. When Lyle arrives home from the supermarket, Monique is amazed when he reports how easy it was to pick up the items curbside with almost no contact with the outside world. Relieved, they carefully disinfect their groceries.
It is obvious that Monique and Myles value protecting their father from the virus above anything else, and they seem to have things under control, or as under control as you can expect during an unprecedented crisis. But a COVID bubble is a fragile thing, and when Monique receives a call from her old friend Mavis (Emily Davis) in New York City begging her to come, she immediately agrees.
It’s hard to talk about The Harbinger without thinking about my own pandemic experience. When Monique makes the decision to mask up, leave her family bubble, and drive to Queens, you can feel the gravity of her decision. Living in New York City in the spring of 2020, the idea of driving to a friend’s house would have seemed like a ludicrous risk to take. Mitton’s direction and Beans’ performance beautifully convey the bravery of Monique’s decision to do something that in saner times would be entirely mundane.
When Monique arrives at Mavis’s Queens apartment building, it is all she can do to muster the compassion to hold the door open for a mother carrying her sick, coughing child into the building. And things are no better inside. Monique is dismayed to find her friend covered in scratches, with a worrying bruise near her mouth. Mavis explains why she asked Monique to come: she is having nightmares, and they are getting worse. They’re getting longer, for one thing – sometimes lasting for days. Mavis has tried to wake up from these dreams, even biting her lip until it bleeds, but nothing works. And that’s not the worst part.
Something terrible is hunting Mavis in her nightmares. It looks like a 17th-century plague doctor, but it moves with a creeping, spectral menace. She doesn’t know how, but Mavis is certain that it will eventually get close enough to take her away, forever. Monique is pragmatic and a little skeptical, but she is also a brave and loyal friend, so she agrees to stay with Mavis and watch over her while she sleeps. It doesn’t take long for Monique to grasp the severity of Mavis’s nightmares, and she begins to have some truly harrowing dreams of her own. When the little boy she held the door open for succumbs to COVID, he begins to appear in Monique’s dreams too. Now both women are being hunted in their sleep, and they realize they need to call in an expert.
Mavis and Monique meet with a demonologist over (what else?) Zoom, and it is here that this almost oppressively serious movie gets in a fantastic joke. The demonologist (Laura Heisler, Mitton’s wife and a regular in his films) is happy to help, but she’s continuously interrupted their by her young children who are also stuck at home. During a pandemic, even demonologists have to shoulder the unequal burden of juggling motherhood and a career.
The demonologist has bad news for Monique and Mavis. They are being stalked by a plague demon, The Harbinger. It feeds on fear and isolation, and the pandemic has given it a fertile hunting ground. If they can’t stop it, The Harbinger will take them away, and erase all memory and trace of their existence.
It should be said that while The Harbinger offers paranoia and depression in spades, Mitton is never quite able to truly scare us with his plague demon. Maybe the plague doctor has been done before, or maybe this creation just can’t compete with the very real circumstances these characters find themselves in. Unlike other horror movies about the dangers of bad dreams, the waking world of The Harbinger is almost as nightmarish as the horrors Mavis and Monique encounter in their dreams. In the spring of 2020, every morning was another chance to wake up and quickly remember that everything is terrible. A plague demon is terrifying, but so is life during a plague.
There is a standout scene in The Harbinger that has stayed with me for days. Monique has just arrived, masked and completely unnerved, at Mavis’s apartment. The friends stand awkwardly in the apartment, happy to see each other but unsure of what to do, or how to act. Deciding that they have both been equally “careful” in quarantine, they take off their masks and hug. With that line crossed, they mix cocktails, sit on the floor, and catch up. It brought me right back to those tentative steps out of lockdown, how good it felt to finally hug a loved one or have a drink with a friend. The Harbinger takes its characters down a very dark path, and I can’t promise you any happy endings, but this grim story offers an important reminder: we really need each other.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★