No one would blame you for rolling your eyes when you hear the phrase “COVID horror film.” Given the genre’s unique ability to digest and reflect upon societal anxieties we all knew this day would come. Pessimistically, you can just picture all of the low-budget Outbreak-esque reactionary cash grabs making their way through editing suites at this very moment. But hear me out: The Harbinger is great. It uses the still-present pandemic as a setting for elevated tension and mistrust, but at its core is a thoughtful and terrifying reflection of truly basic fears.
Right from the very start, The Harbinger makes it clear that it takes place early in the pandemic, a time when we knew enough to mask up and stay socially distant, but when people had yet to be vaccinated and were still rubbing Lysol all over their groceries before putting them away in the fridge. But before we get there, we start with a doozy of a nightmare.
Mavis (Emily Davis) lives in a typical apartment building in Queens, and is hated by her neighbors. It is not that she is rude or stinky, but loud at night. Very loud. Her shrieking and moaning are unintentional, as they are made while she is deeply sleeping and having sustained nightmares. She also sleepwalks throughout these spells and not even scratching her arm to the point of bleeding will wake her. She knows she needs help, but is all alone. Alone and, thanks to the state of the world, isolated. The only person she can reach out to is her college friend Monique (Gabby Beans).
Mo moved back home along with brother Lyle (Myles Walker) to make sure dad (Raymond Anthony Thomas) is taken care of during the pandemic. The family is loving, supporting and has a heaping dose of humor too. Unpacking and disinfecting the contents of their grocery bags is nearly a throwaway scene, but this family makes it seem like a choreographed act to demonstrate just how well they function as a unit. All is well with them until Mo gets a call from Mavis and makes the unpopular decision to go tend to her friend in the city at the height of viral transmission.
It seems Mavis’s nightmares are not just the garden-variety deep sleeps. After Mo arrives and they do the dance of unmasking and hugging, Mavis tells Mo about the increasing severity of her dreams. The spells can last days, and are inhabited by a terrifying bird-nosed character in black robes. This creature tells her of her imminent danger and is the main character in her mental demise. All of this would be unsettling enough, but on top of them (literally) is the non-stop coughing of their upstairs neighbor. Even isolated together, there is no ignoring the global crisis around them. As these two old friends try to dig to the origin of the nightmare-conducting entity, things go from bad to worse. They learn that not only is the thing relentless, but that it is not affecting them alone.
Much of the success of The Harbinger is owed to stylistic choices by writer, director, editor and composer Andy Mitton. The multi-hyphenate force behind the film seems keenly aware of the history of nightmares in horror film history and has a little fun playing with audience expectations in terms of shooting style and content. As The Harbinger transitions from dreams to waking, the camera, framing, lighting and even sound stay largely the same. There are a few noted exceptions, but the experience drives home the notion that these dreams feel as real to us as they do to the sufferer. While this might sound confusing and disorienting, that is kind of the point of the whole technique. These nightmares are truly terrifying because it is nearly impossible to tell where reality ends and dreams begin.
The Harbinger tonally balances these various weighty notions deftly without ever showing the amount of effort behind the whole thing. It does not ever feel forced, or as if it is shoehorning in agendas and arguments. Helping with the ease of presentation is the incredible performances across the small cast. Mostly New York theater actors who were not on stage due to the pandemic, each performer completely melts into their character to bring empathy, nuance and humanity to these fully-formed people. Though this is the first feature film Beans has on her resume, she was nominated for a Tony in The Skin of Our Teeth in 2022. She absolutely nails her performance as Mo, balancing kindness with anxiety and suspicion.
Director Mitton already has a helluva track record when it comes to indie horror films. Both The Witch in the Window and We Go On, which he directed and co-directed respectively, were also shown at Fantasia. His first feature, Yellow Brick Road is an incredible dip into contemporary fairy tales and terror, which set the bar awfully high for the rest of his cinematic career. Mitton is absolutely a filmmaker to get on your radar.
There is very little, if anything, that The Harbinger does wrong. It is an enticingly terrifying film with superb performances, a wonderful script and all the right directorial choices and sets the bar high for COVID horror.
Director: Andy Mitton
Writer: Andy Mitton
Stars: Gabby Beans, Cody Braverman, Emily Davis, Ray Anthony Thomas, Myles Walker
Release Date: July 22, 2022 (Fantasia Film Festival)
Deirdre Crimmins is a Chicago-based film critic who lives with two black cats, and her eternal optimism that the next film she watches might be her new favorite. She wrote her Master’s thesis on George Romero and still loves a good musical.