I still remember the first pandemic-era grocery trip I made. Lining up, adjusting my mask, constantly worrying over how much to distance or which way to go down the aisle so as not to run afoul of the directional stickers on the floor. COVID, for me, was and is largely defined by the anxiety around even leaving the house and all the dubious firsts and lasts – the last movie I went to in a theatre, the first meeting I had with family or friends that I don’t live with, or both the last and the first restaurant meals I had indoors. Certainly the last and first times I hugged someone outside my circle – feel like a part of COVID that all of us have had to reconcile. Andy Mitton’s new horror, The Harbinger, perhaps gets to the deep weirdness of all this better than any other pandemic-era film I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a fair few. It feels like a time capsule, stuffed to brimming with moments like Zoom calls (complete with kids running amok), awkward mask-lowerings, and wondering whether to wipe down one’s groceries, that make the post-2020 world feel so different from the Before Times.
The Harbinger first introduces us to Mavis (Emily Davis) as a woman being tormented, and in the throes of a mental breakdown. Her antagonist is a plague-masked creature that floats through the walls of her apartment, infecting her dreams and rendering her unable to sleep. After an intervention from her well-meaning superintendent, Mavis reaches out to her old college friend, Monique (Gabby Beans). Monique, against the wishes of her brother Ronald (Raymond Anthony Thomas) and her father Lyle (Myles Walker) travels into Queens from the suburbs to check on her friend. It becomes clear that Mavis’ ‘disease’, in which she goes for days at a time without sleep and is now plagued by nightmares even while awake, is as contagious as COVID. These nightmare states are scary enough and filled with imagery that may not be very visually inventive, but they paint an effective picture and provide a terrifying experience, especially when coupled with the idea that haunted dreams can spread like a contagion.
Though the setup of The Harbinger, on paper, is pretty rote – a masked tormentor creeping into and manipulating the dreams of its unwitting victims – the way COVID is centered in the story sets it apart. So too do the performances of its leads, in particular Gabby Beans’ Monique and Emily Davis’ Mavis. The connection between Monique and her family, as well as the one between her and Mavis, feels genuine and here’s an authenticity and natural feeling to their dialogue that makes the characters feel layered and relatable, and their reactions to the all-too-familiar pandemic horrors seem to jive with ways I reacted to similar situations, or at least observed others reacting to them. I felt seen by Monique’s early reaction to the nightmares being to post to Reddit to try to find common experiences or advice.
What Mitton is getting at with The Harbinger is a blurring of the lines between waking and sleeping, dreams and reality. That may well be the most enduring experience of pandemic life for me. Waking up, over and over, in the same place and never (or rarely) leaving. Work means rolling out of bed and logging into a virtual meeting. Interactions with others outside one’s home are guarded if they happen at all. Old routines are supplanted by new ones – looping a mask over your ears, sticking a swab up your nose, and handwashing, so much handwashing. The strength of The Harbinger is that there are little slivers of pandemic life that are relatable to all, or at least most of us. That makes for an intensely personal experience even if the little details don’t always add up. But, I would assert, do any of the details of the past two years add up?
Being a story that people will inevitably read and internalize differently based on their experiences during the pandemic, it’s hard to pin down just one specific message from The Harbinger. For me, it was the questioning of the limits of friendship. What are you willing to do for someone you love, and is it worth infecting yourself with their trauma? But your takeaway might be different. Like everything to do with the pandemic, The Harbinger is a myriad of contrasts and conflicts. It’s hopeful, but bleak. It’s familiar, but supernatural. The pandemic affected most of us in sad and sometimes nightmarish ways, and Andy Mitton, with The Harbinger, provides an encapsulation of the experience that feels more than timely, and is something approaching timeless.
XYZ Films presents The Harbinger, the latest film from Andy Mitton (The Witch in the Window, YellowBrickRoad, We Go On), in cinemas and on VOD on December 1st.