For all the modern anxieties that permeate the surface of Andy Mitton’s THE HARBINGER, it’s the image of one hand grasping another that sticks in my mind. THE HARBINGER has got a lot on its mind: the COVID-19 pandemic, isolation’s effect on mental health, and the horrifying implications of endangering those you love. It’s all heavy stuff, and could easily become overwhelming. It’s the humanism at the center of the film that keeps that from happening.
Monique (Gabby Beans) has gone to stay with an old friend, Mavis (Emily Davis). It’s the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while Monique’s family is isolating, something in Mavis’ voice calls to Monique. When she arrives, she finds that her friend is in the throes of a mental health crisis. This crisis opens up into something much more sinister, as Monique realizes that it is not the only thing haunting Mavis. Soon, anxieties and a supernatural creature start to blur into the real world.
With those anxieties so upfront and center, there’s a danger that THE HARBINGER could feel heavy-handed. A few recent horror movies could not help but slip into being more metaphors than they were horror films. There’s also the opposite issue, the danger of using the COVID-19 pandemic and the mental health crisis as window dressing. There’s a delicate balance between allegory, and pure storytelling that films like BARBARIAN or SMILE could not manage to quite make. THE HARBINGER does, and it’s largely because of the film’s focus on naturalism and human moments.
That naturalism is highlighted early in the film, as Mitton’s direction and writing allows Monique’s family to simply have human conversations about nothing. There’s an adage that every single line of dialogue should have some sort of major purpose in a film, but following that line to its logical conclusion can mean only addressing metaphor. The simple humanism of watching a family reminisce about the time before the pandemic goes a long way to endearing us to Monique. The handheld camerawork in this warmer sequence also contrasts the smoother, steadier, camerawork that wraps its way around the scarier sequences.
As for those scarier sequences, the result is nerve-shredding. Something that both SMILE and THE HARBINGER embrace this year is the idea of not reinventing the wheel, just perfecting it. The score and edit (both also done by Mitton) are terrifyingly placed. The horror imagery here is calculated too. The image of the back of a truck containing a lone figure surrounded by body bags has a strange richness to it. When that figure moves, the movement seems studied. The audience has seen jump scares like this before, but there is something to say for good craft.
The other reason why I keep bringing up SMILE in relation to THE HARBINGER is the contrast in how they attack the metaphor of mental health. The approach in SMILE is effective, but close to problematic in what it has to say about how mental health is transferred among people. THE HARBINGER avoids almost all of those pitfalls. Early monologues from both Monique and Mavis clearly illuminate some deep personal understanding of the way the pandemic has impacted their mental health. They feel honest and authentic. That honesty and authenticity bleeds into the rest of the movie, and infuses the rest with a deeply felt sense of purpose.
It is that deeply felt sense of purpose that brings us back around to the image of one person holding another person’s hand. The waking nightmare that is depicted in THE HARBINGER is part false, and part true. COVID anxieties still float around us. Mental health crises continue day by day. The harbinger of whatever is bound to show up. At least we can hold onto each other, and make it through together.
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