Review by Sean Boelman
In the past two years, many filmmakers have tried to make movies about our experience in the COVID-19 pandemic, but few have managed to do so in a way that is both effective and entertaining. Horror filmmaker Andy Mitton does not join those ranks, as his film, The Harbinger, has a decent atmosphere but not the script to take advantage of it.
The movie follows a woman who breaks her family’s quarantine bubble to take care of a longtime friend having a mental breakdown, only to discover that the nightmares her friend is suffering from might be contagious. As a concept, it could have gone off the rails really quickly and become insensitive, but Mitton largely manages to avoid that.
There are some genuinely creepy moments throughout the film, and Mitton does make the most out of the claustrophobic COVID quarantine environment in which the movie is set. However, many of the scares recycle familiar imagery, like evil forces clad in the garb of a plague doctor or creepy kids with dead eyes, but it’s only all mildly creepy.
Some of the themes that Mitton explores regarding the idea of memory are intriguing, but none of it is stuff that hasn’t been done before more effectively. Indeed, the film ends up feeling reminiscent of better movies like She Dies Tomorrow and A Nightmare on Elm Street that work with similar concepts but do more with them.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the movie is that, especially for a COVID film, the characters are frustratingly vague. These are experiences and anxieties that all of us have lived through and are fresh in our minds. It is a premise that should be immediately empathetic, and yet audiences will come out of the movie feeling largely cold.
Part of the issue is that the performances all feel rather stilted. The dialogue is written in a very direct way, and the actors deliver it in a way that is even more so. Had the film leaned even further into the supernatural aspect of things, it could have possibly worked, but in its current, semi-ambiguous state, everything feels rather unnatural.
Mitton does create an atmosphere that gives the movie tension even when the rest of the film comes up short. You can tell that this is meant to be a psychological slow burn, but then there are the very overt supernatural elements spread throughout, and it doesn’t quite strike the right balance between them to be entirely believable.
The Harbinger tries to tap into a communal anxiety, but it really fails to do anything that is particularly scary. It’s not a bad film by any means — it just lacks the character development and consistency to make it interesting beyond its eeriness.
The Harbinger screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, which runs July 13 through August 3.