In the years and the decade to come, we’re going to look back at pandemic-era films and see some that were made in the pandemic and maybe made it a small detail in the storyline, while others that really embraced it. Not celebrated it, but really grabbed it and incorporated it into the story. There’s no right or wrong to this, but I will say that The Harbinger is most definitely one of the latter. It’s one of the strongest and most impactful pandemic-era films that I have seen (to say nothing of the fact that it’s just a freaking brilliant film overall).
Written and directed by Andy Mitton, The Harbinger is set during the early days of lockdown. Monique (Gabby Beans) and her brother have come home to spend lockdown with their father. The trio are super careful and are doing everything possible to stay safe in the time before vaccines became available. They stay home, on the rare occasions that they need to go out, they mask up, and they are careful to let nobody into their bubble.
Until the day Monique gets a strange phone call. The caller is her former college roommate, who is going through a mental health crisis. Mo has had her own experiences in this area, and Mavis (Emily Davis) was always there for her. She knows that she has to return the favor and provide support to Mavis now. Though she lives in a very scary moment, the magnitude of Mavis’ call makes leaving her house almost an easy decision for her. Her brother and father get angry and try to talk her out of it, but it’s something that she needs to do. She has to be there for her friend.
She drives into Brooklyn. She keeps masking, maintaining six feet of distance between herself and everyone she comes into contact with. When she reaches Mavis’ apartment, the two very carefully explore the risks, communicating how cautious they have both been, before slowly removing their masks and embracing. Mavis breaks down crying. She has lived alone through it all and this is the first contact that she has had with another human in months. Mo just being there seems to immediately make a difference to her friend’s state of mind.
They spend some time catching up and having a few moments of normalcy, and then Mavis begins to explain just what has been happening to her. She has been having strange and terrifying dreams. But they are more than nightmares. She will fall asleep, sometimes for days at a time, and will be unable to wake. Even when she knows that she is dreaming, nothing that she does - from willing herself to wake up, to acknowledging the dream, to falling - nothing brings her back to wakefulness. And all the while she is in the dreamspace, she is followed by some sort of an entity. Something who knows who she is and is slowly wearing her down. She fears that if this goes on, she will just disappear forever. Not wake up, and just be gone.
Mo offers what help she can. She offers a sympathetic ear, she puts together a list of doctors and sleep specialists and she acts as a support system for Mavis while she sleeps, watching her and seeing if she does anything strange or dangerous. She does what she can, but quickly realizes that this is not simply a mental health crisis. Over the first two days, Mo also has similarly terrifying and vivid dreams, encountering a dark and malevolent force that seems to be stalking her through them.
Whatever Mavis is experiencing, Mo is now a part of it. They contact a demonologist and arrange for a meeting via Zoom. What they learn is less than heartening. The entity that they are up against is not something simple. It’s big and dark and foreboding. Everything that they felt and hoped that they were imagining is actually real and is stalking them through the night.
There is a lot going on here that makes this film incredibly strong. Let’s start with the pandemic setting. In the first fifteen minutes, I went through so many emotions. Remembering the fear, the isolation and the opposing feeling of safety from being stuck inside our homes for months. The paranoia and the feelings of control that we all searched for and found in our everyday actions and the rules that we set up in our own lives. It’s all there. The pandemic is more than just a setting in this one; it sets the tone for the film as well. A layer of fear and isolation that this demon can feed on and grow in.
Mitton’s earlier film The Witch in the Window employed a sense of foreboding that can be seen in this work as well. Something dark and sinister lying in wait, just out of sight of the characters and the audience. And here, that something lies in both the waking world and the dreamspace, as well as somewhere beyond both. There is a desperation in the women’s search for answers because what they’re facing is more than a haunting or a monster. There is this existential dread that Mitton brings into the mix that impacts the way the story plays out and the way we feel once the film is finished. And it’s masterfully accomplished.
The cast does a fantastic job at selling all of this. When we meet Mo, she is a caring, yet grounded individual. She approaches Mavis’ problems with a sense of logic and empathy, and when she begins to believe that there is something more going on, it shakes her. Gabby Beans inhabits all of it skillfully and really helps to transition the story from being grounded in logic to being taken over by something sinister. Davis plays very well against this, as Mavis has been living in this reality for longer and is much more affected by it when we first meet her.
The Harbinger is a film that is both astounding in the moment, and will linger (and perhaps strengthen) for years to come. As we get further away from the nightmare of the past several years and the “new normal” becomes increasingly “normal,” this film will stand as both a brilliant work of fiction, and a time capsule to a very real period in our memories. And through it all, it will remain nightmarishly terrifying.
Movie Score: 5/5