The isolation and helplessness some people felt during the prime days of COVID lockdown is utilized to good effect in “The Harbinger.” Andy Mitton’s second solo feature (following two co-directed with Jesse Holland) is a spooky tale in which vulnerable individuals find themselves prey to a malevolent spirit that worms into their dreams, dislodging them from grounding reality.
More eerie than terrifying, with strong performances and atmosphere pushing past some fuzzy plot aspects, this Fantasia premiere should please more discerning genre fans in XYZ Films’ release to limited theaters and VOD on Sept. 1. (It is not to be confused with another U.S. supernatural drama starring Irene Bedard that boasts the same title, which debuted at Dances With Films in June and opens Sept. 2.)
Disturbing, recurrent cries from the NYC apartment of Mavis (Ellen Davis) have gotten complaints from neighbors, particularly a next-door “Karen” and belligerent anti-masker (Stephanie Roth Haberle). When her more-sympathetic building superintendent (Cody Braverman) lets himself in to investigate, he finds the tenant in a state of whimpering hysteria and self-harm — yet asleep. After successfully waking her, he urges Mavis to get help.
Blood relatives apparently not being an option, she rings up old friend Monique (Gabby Beans), who’s surprised though happy to hear from her. There is a prior debt of gratitude that makes Mo reluctantly drive to the city in response, despite disapproval from the brother (Myles Walker) and father (Myles Walker) with whom she’s been carefully maintaining a virus-free lockdown “bubble” in their upstate home.
Upon arrival in the metropolis, rendered ghostly quiet as a contagion epicenter, she finds Mavis a bit disheveled but seemingly normal enough, cheered by this reunion. When coaxed into explanation, she admits to “bad dreams” she says alarm clocks and even inflicting pain cannot disrupt, a phenomenon that keeps getting worse. It seems a fairly simple case of cumulative stress. Yet when Mo offers to sleep beside her that first night, providing the reassurance of another person’s physical presence … she immediately has a vividly realistic nightmare of her own.
That is enough to prompt scheduling a video chat with a purported demonologist (Laura Heisler) who does not seem a nutcase or charlatan. She immediately recognizes the entity described (which Mo glimpsed in the film’s creepiest visual) as a cruel trickster who plays with a victim’s mind until they’re “hollowed out,” so much so that their very existence eventually vanishes from other people’s memories as well. (Mavis has a photo of an apparent prior boyfriend she cannot remember, who may have been her own domestic partner in this same apartment.) Her prognosis for those already afflicted is not encouraging.
With both women now in the same predicament, “The Harbinger” becomes a maze in which dreams deceptively look like reality, and true reality is increasingly hard to grasp. The concept may recall “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” but the execution is closer to something like Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus,” less dependent on fantasy FX and gore than on a slippery, dislocating narrative logic.
Mitton’s script could be more intricate and punchy in that regard — even if “forgetting” is a significant plot element, there’s no reason the lead characters’ backstories couldn’t be clarified further, or that some transitions should seem just as confusing to us as to them. Plus, the idea of whole lives being “erased” remains something of an abstraction here. Anthony Hopkins’ gradual loss of self to senility in “The Father” made a real-world equivalent more frightening than this demonic force. (The director’s first feature with Holland, 2010’s “Yellowbrickroad,” likewise relied on a menace of vanishings that just weren’t very scary.)
Nonetheless, “The Harbinger” disappoints only in that it’s good enough to make you wish it were better — that it left an indelible impression rather than a slightly vague one. Atmospherically, it does a lot with little, never feeling claustrophobically confined by the very ordinary, even drab lockdown interiors. They’re occasionally broken up by snowy exteriors that are no more welcoming in Ludovica Isidori’s adept cinematography. (The better to deceive, even those dreaded dreams are limited to these same humble settings.)
Unlike many films incorporating COVID-enforced conditions, this one transcends obvious gimmickry to make the pandemic a key, organic plot element, with the central ghoul said to have flourished in such conditions dating back to the days of medieval plagues. Though their characters aren’t always fully realized in the writing, the actors make it all plausible by emphasizing an understated, everyday quality to figures that might easily have been played in more histrionic keys.