The Harbinger Review: A Devilish Pandemic Dilemma
The isolation and helplessness that some people felt in the best days of the COVID lockdown is successfully used in The Harbinger. Andy Mitton’s second solo feature film (after two co-directed with Jesse Holland) is a chilling tale about vulnerable individuals who fall prey to a malevolent spirit that creeps into their dreams and drives them from the grounded reality.
More sinister than frightening, with strong performances and an atmosphere that transcends some hazy plot aspects, this Fantasia premiere should please more discerning genre fans upon XYZ Films’ release in limited theaters and VOD on September 1st. (Not to be confused with another US supernatural drama starring Irene Bedard and of the same title, which debuted on Dances With Films in June and opens September 2.)
Disturbing, recurring screams from Mavis’ (Ellen Davis) New York apartment have drawn complaints from neighbors, most notably a “Karen” next door and a belligerent anti-masker (Stephanie Roth Häberle). When her more sympathetic caretaker (Cody Braverman) steps in to investigate, he finds the tenant in a state of whimpering hysteria and self-harm – still asleep. After successfully waking her up, he urges Mavis to get help.
With blood relatives apparently not an option, she calls her old friend Monique (Gabby Beans), who is surprised but glad to hear from her. There’s a prior gratitude that Mo reluctantly drives to town, despite the disapproval of her brother (Myles Walker) and father (Myles Walker), with whom she’s been diligent in maintaining a virus-free “bubble” in her backcountry home.
Arriving in Metropolis, which has gone eerily quiet as the epicenter of the contagion, she finds Mavis a little disheveled but apparently normal enough, and is glad to see her again. When persuaded to explain, she admits to having “bad dreams,” saying that alarm clocks and even inflicting pain can’t interfere, a phenomenon that’s only getting worse. It seems like a fairly simple case of cumulative stress. But when Mo offers to sleep next to her that first night, giving her the assurance of someone else’s physical presence… she immediately has a vivid, realistic nightmare of her own.
That’s enough to set up a video chat with an alleged demonologist (Laura Heisler) who doesn’t come across as a weirdo or charlatan. She immediately recognizes the entity described (that Mo beheld in the film’s scariest image) as a cruel imposter toying with a victim’s mind until they are so “hollowed out” that their very existence eventually vanishes Miscellaneous people’s memories too. (Mavis has a photo of an apparent past friend she doesn’t remember who may have been her own life partner in the same apartment.) Her prognosis for those already affected is not encouraging.
With both women now in the same predicament, The Harbinger becomes a maze where dreams seem deceptively real and true reality becomes increasingly elusive. The concept may be reminiscent of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the execution is more akin to something like Mike Flanagan’s Oculus, relying less on fantasy effects and gore and more on a slippery, confusing narrative logic.
Mitton’s screenplay could be more complicated and punchy in this regard – while oblivion is a significant plot element, there’s no reason why the main characters’ backstories couldn’t be further clarified, or that some transitions shouldn’t seem as confusing to us as they did to them. Also, the idea of entire lives being “wiped out” remains something abstract here. Anthony Hopkins’ gradual self-loss to old age in The Father made a real-world equivalent more terrifying than this demonic force. (The director’s first feature film starring Holland, Yellowbrickroad, in 2010, also relied on a disappearance threat, which just wasn’t very scary.)
Nonetheless, “The Harbinger” only disappoints in that it’s good enough to make you wish it were better – that it left an indelible impression rather than a somewhat vague one. Atmospherically it does a lot with little and never feels claustrophobically constrained by the very ordinary, even drab, lockdown interiors. Occasionally they’re interrupted by snowy exteriors that couldn’t be more inviting in Ludovica Isidori’s skillful cinematography. (To better fool it, even these dreaded dreams are limited to the same humble settings.)
Unlike many films that feature conditions enforced by COVID, this one goes beyond obvious shenanigans to make the pandemic a central, organic plot element, with the central ghoul supposedly thriving in conditions that date back to the days of medieval plagues . Although their characters aren’t always fully realized in the script, the actors make everything plausible by emphasizing an understated, everyday quality in characters that could easily be played in more theatrical tones.
https://variety.com/2022/film/reviews/the-harbinger-review-1235335982/ The Harbinger Review: A Devilish Pandemic Dilemma