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Fantasia 2022 Critique: “The Harbinger” – A Nightmare Unleashed

Garnering attention in the international film community since his impressive debut feature We Go On in 2016, co-directed with Jesse Holland, Andy Mitton has solidified his position as a standout independent filmmaker in the U.S. With his haunting fusion of familial woes and spectral frights in The Witch in the Window (2018), Mitton presented a gripping narrative. Now, with his latest creation, The Harbinger, he has arguably outdone himself, presenting what can be considered the most compelling horror tale rooted in the COVID-19 times. As part of our selection at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival, we delve into this masterpiece here.

Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous year 2020, with a pandemic wreaking havoc across the U.S., The Harbinger recounts the solitary plight of Monique (Gabby Beans), who, from her family refuge in upstate New York, heeds a desperate call from Mavis (Emily Davis), her long-lost friend. Isolated in an eerie, deteriorating apartment in New York City, Mavis’s plea for companionship during the pandemic masks her truer fear of a sinister presence that preys on her in her dreams. Despite Monique’s initial doubts, the encounter with this malevolent force in her own nightmares confirms their worst fears: this demon’s malice is not only terrifying, it’s contagious.

True to its title, The Harbinger resonates with the dread and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. As Mavis laments, finding herself awaking from frightful dreams only to face the reality of the ongoing nightmare engulfing the world. Yet, calling the film’s fiend a mere symbol for the virus would be superficial—it embodies the broader societal destruction left in the wake of COVID. Monique’s arrival at Mavis’s residence is marred by sights of sickness and sounds of suffering that pervade even through the walls, punctuating a grim reality that transcends metaphors.

Mitton’s film taps into the essence of human angst during prolonged seclusion; it’s an exploration of the profound isolation, the severance of social ties, and the haunting fear of being erased from the collective memory. Targeting the lone and exposed, the Harbinger draws its victims into an endless, inescapable nightmare — an allegory for the mental scars left by the enforced solitude of lockdowns. More poignantly, it touches upon the uncomfortable truth of how society often discards or diminishes the individuality of COVID victims reduced to mere statistics.

Mitton’s approach to the dream sequences of the film is notably disconcerting. Deviating from the typical dreamscape depictions of horror with vivid, otherworldly aesthetics, The Harbinger instead maintains a seamless blend between dream and reality, matching the monochromatic tones of alterity. This intentional ambiguity mirrors our own disoriented perceptions during the indistinguishable days of lockdown, offering a reflection on the domesticated strangeness of that era.

The Harbinger entity, a chilling specter that conjures images of a plague doctor with a sinister silhouette, makes its presence known in scenes that will chill viewers to the core. Mitton’s craft in constructing such a grotesque adversary quashes any notion that his works lack fright, culminating in a scare that could very well rival the legendary jump scare of The Exorcist III (1990).

Indeed, The Harbinger encapsulates the collective ordeal we have faced in recent years, and stands out as a defining horror film that grapples with our very real terrors. Yet, beyond the immediacy of the pandemic, the film hints at darker omens on the horizon. The harbinger embodies the idea of a warning, a prophecy of looming catastrophes that threaten to follow the pandemic: be it a deadlier disease, the escalating climate crisis, or the ever-deepening chasms in our society — all potentially unfurling into a dystopian reality where daily life becomes an unending nightmare.

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