While it’s almost surreal, we’ve been living through a global pandemic for almost three years and counting now. Of all the things COVID has impacted, movies and theatrical releases hardly ranks high on the list. Despite its impact on release schedules, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to exploit the pandemic for scares. To date, we’ve had a handful of COVID-themed movies – most of them have varied in tastelessness. Yes, we’re looking at you Songbird and Corona Zombies. On the plus side, Host remains one of the best horror movies of the last few years. Now The Harbinger looks to intertwine the pandemic into its horror narrative. Not to be confused with another recently released horror movie, also called The Harbinger, this one actually has won praise from several critics.
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Monique lives with her father and brother, strictly adhering to social distancing protocols. But a phone call from a close, friend, Mavis, draws her to New York City. Bizarre nightmares plague Mavis that she claims feel real – sometimes she struggles to wake from them. And Mavis believes a dark figure shaped like a plague doctor is stalking her in and outside of these nightmares. Compelled to help her friend, Monique soon finds the same nightmares haunting her, placing her own existence at risk.
The Harbinger Delivers More Philosophical Scares Than Actual Ones
While Host set itself against the backdrop of the pandemic, The Harbinger directly tackles the impact of COVID-19 from an existential perspective. Writer and director Andy Mitton (YellowBrickRoad) tackles challenging issues about our existence using the image of the ‘plague doctor’. In this regard, The Harbinger takes the same kind of risks that movies revolving around the ‘War on Terror’ did shortly after 9/11. Audiences are still dealing with and reeling from the pandemic. Mitton toys with the idea of a demonic entity that doesn’t just destroy us – it erases our existence. At a theoretical level, The Harbinger taps into many of the same social anxieties that have plagued us over the last three years.
For a movie about a demonic entity stalking and threatening one’s very existence, The Harbinger lacks any sort of urgency in its storytelling. Many scenes feel superfluous even when the movie itself clocks in at just under 90 minutes.
As a philosophical study of fears around our own mortality, The Harbinger is an intriguing thought exercise. But as a horror movie it falls short in a few distinct ways. For a movie about a demonic entity stalking and threatening one’s very existence, The Harbinger lacks any sort of urgency in its storytelling. Many scenes feel superfluous even when the movie itself clocks in at just under 90 minutes. Though jump scares aren’t a prerequisite for terror, The Harbinger lacks much in the way of suspense. Yes, Mitton craft a consistently morose atmosphere that ensures audiences feel on edge. Still there’s not much about the movie that feels gripping.
The Harbinger Features Good Performances, But An Undefined Villain
Arguably, The Harbinger lacks a clearly defined villain to terrorize audiences. There’s the very real specter of COVID-19 hanging over the narrative alongside the historical image of the ‘plague doctor’. Nevertheless, Mitton never gives his demon any defining characteristic or sense of purpose. It just exists – why it target Mavis, or anyone, is never articulated. And it’s not a matter Mitton opting for ambiguity. Much of the movie is focused on expository dialogue – telling us rather than showing us. Rather The Harbinger’s demonic entity very much plays a background role in a slowly paced thriller. There’s big ideas afoot but as an actual viewing experience, The Harbinger is rarely a visceral viewing experience. The finale proposes a bleak commentary – it’s very cerebral – but it’s not necessarily affecting.
…Mitton never gives his demon any defining characteristic or sense of purpose. It just exists …
While the movie itself is often abstract, the performances themselves are very real and very good. In particular, Gabby Banks – who plays the film’s central character, Monique – is always a compelling watch. She perfectly captures the frustration of balancing competing responsibilities against mounting pressure. Moreover, Banks invests the character with enough empathy and range to make even the more questionable choices feel believable. All of the supporting performances are quietly strong, particularly Raymond Anthony Thomas’ work. If there’s urgency to The Harbinger it comes from Emily Davis’ ‘Mavis’ as she becomes increasingly desperate to avoid her fate.
The Harbinger is a Moody, Atmospheric Thriller That Falls a Bit Short On Scares
As a meditation on the COVID-19 pandemic – and all the ways it impacted our existence – The Harbinger is thought-provoking horror. In addition, the atmosphere is appropriately bleak and Gabby Beans’ performance promises a big future. Yet the overall experience of The Harbinger is muted. Aside from slack pacing and a lack of urgency in its storytelling, Mitton fails to clearly define a threat or the film’s demonic entity despite leaning heavily on expository dialogue. While it’s certainly a moody horror movie, The Harbinger isn’t particularly scary or interesting.