Making a film about the COVID-19 pandemic is risky. You could easily run into the paradox of having a dated film that only appeals to people in 2022 while simultaneously scaring off viewers who have pandemic fatigue. When you’re in the middle of a mass trauma event, you might not want to see on-screen depictions of mobile morgue units, meticulously sanitized grocery deliveries, or signs reminding people to stand six feet apart. Andy Mitton’s The Harbinger doesn’t shy away from these new facts of life, and the only way to tell if that dates the movie is to wait and see. However, the film finds universal messages about mortality and memory in the minutiae of pandemic life. The Harbinger offers the bleak and quietly devastating reminder that we all die alone and forgotten, with only our abandoned possessions left to mourn us.
Monique (Gabby Beans) is in a COVID bubble with her father Ronald (Raymond Anthony Thomas) and her brother Lyle (Myles Walker). When her college roommate Mavis (Emily Davis) tells her that she needs Monique’s help, Monique breaks the safety of the bubble and ventures into the city to help her. She owes Mavis, after all, for saving her life when she was suicidal in college. When she gets to Mavis’s apartment — after tentative reassurances of how safe they both have been, with a tearful, desperate hug reminding the friends and the viewer of the emotional weight behind the physical isolation of lockdown — she learns that Mavis has been having bad dreams. These aren’t normal nightmares (though, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the definition of “normal” is far more malleable than we realized). They can last for days at a time, and there is a horrific entity keeping her trapped inside them. Monique is skeptical at first, but she soon begins having nightmares too. The fear spreads like a virus, you see, and Mavis has passed the nightmares — and the plague doctor-shaped entity — on to Monique.
Fear as a contagion isn’t a new concept in horror. What The Harbinger does so well, though, is to take a familiar concept, filter it through a highly specific moment in history, and find a way to make it feel timeless. No matter when you were born or how dramatically this pandemic has affected your life, we all fear dying alone. It’s the saddest and the most inevitable fact of life. Just as inevitable is the fact that we will all one day be forgotten, which is a concept The Harbinger focuses on to terrifying and heartbreaking effect. Try to remember the face of a loved one who died years ago. Try to remember what their laugh sounded like. It’s hard to do, and it gets harder as the years go by. Death comes for us all in the end, even in other people’s memories.
The Harbinger is not an easy watch. It’s engaging, scary, and thought-provoking. It has me excited to see what star Gabby Beans and writer, director, composer, and editor Andy Mitton do next. But it is not an easy watch, especially if you’ve lost a loved one to COVID. Perhaps I don’t need those last two words, though, because The Harbinger is not just about this pandemic or the past three years or the brutal isolation we’ve had to endure to try to keep ourselves and each other safe. It’s about something we will all experience one day: the brutal isolation of dying.
This isn’t my normal type of review. I would typically tell you more about the plot and the characters, describe the cinematography, praise the score. But, again, “normal” is a shapeshifter. I have no uplifting parting words for you; merely the quilt of existential dread that this film left me under, and a recommendation that you watch The Harbinger and experience it for yourself. Whether you’re in the same room with someone while it plays, you will, ultimately, watch it alone.