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Fantasia ’22 review: “THE HARBINGER” frighteningly combines real-world and otherworldly threats

Friday, July 22, 2022 | Fantasia International Film Festival, Reviews


Starring Gabby Beans, Emily Davis and Myles Walker
Written and directed by Andy Mitton
XYZ Films

Independent filmmaker Andy Mitton has been quietly building an impressive résumé of movies that have just as much heart as they do horror–starting in partnership with Jesse Holland on YELLOWBRICKROAD and WE GO ON (reviewed here), and continuing solo with THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW (reviewed here). Looking back over that past coverage, it seems I’m always noting Mitton’s previous credits in my reviews, and that’s in no small part because his movies still haven’t received the attention they deserve. His new film THE HARBINGER, a world premiere at Montreal’s current Fantasia International Film Festival and headed for wider release later this year, very well should and hopefully will change that.

THE HARBINGER (not to be confused with a same-titled film featuring THE BLACK PHONE’s Madeleine McGraw also set to come out in 2022) reconfirms Mitton’s skill at intertwining personal character concerns with the supernatural forces or entities afflicting his protagonists. The mix is particularly resonant here as Mitton sets THE HARBINGER during the darkest days of the pandemic, before vaccinations and before anyone knew whether catching the virus might be an individual’s death sentence. More than any other COVID-era film I’ve seen, this one catches the uncertainty, the mood and the details of living through that period of life-or-death precautions and sheltering in place, while trying to hang onto some shred of hope.

“We’re all wishing for the same damn thing,” says Ronald (Ray Anthony Thomas) as he blows out birthday-cake candles with his grown children Monique (Gabby Beans) and Lyle (Myles Walker), and no one has to elaborate. They’ve been locking down in an upstate-New York house and making the best of things, before Monique announces she’s taking a trip to Queens to help out her badly troubled old friend Mavis (Emily Davis). Lyle and Ronald are none too happy about Monique traveling outside their safe zone, and quite plausibly concerned about what she might bring back. There’s good reason for her to want to aid Mavis, though, as the latter has been suffering nightmares so vivid and upsetting that they’ve led her, as we see in an opening scene, to acts of self-mutilation.

Right from the start, Mitton sets up parallel tracks of paranormal and real-world horror, and the relationship between the two becomes more specific, and frightening, as THE HARBINGER goes on. The m.o. of the titular being that haunts Mavis’ sleep has dark reflections of the pandemic that go well beyond the Plague Doctor mask it wears–as Monique finds once she arrives at Mavis’ place. It isn’t long before she too is suffering nocturnal visits from the Harbinger, and thus gains a personal stake in trying to determine how to banish it from their psyches.

Mitton, who served as editor and composer in addition to writer and director, stages and shoots very unsettling nightmare scenes, in concert with DP Ludovica Isidori and others on his craft team. Rather than employing the flamboyant effects of an ELM STREET picture, these bad dreams play off the circumstances of Monique and Mavis’ current existence, with disturbing and horrific twists. Mitton even gets away–does he ever–with a couple of dream-within-dream sequences, successfully upsetting the characters’ and the audience’s sense of security. The more we learn about the Harbinger’s endgame, the more tragic the potential consequences become, and the more concern we feel that the two women may not be able to escape its grasp.

Beans and Davis are both excellent as Monique attempts to balance family concerns with the desire to help her friend, and Mavis fights an inexorably losing battle with the despair the Harbinger brings on. Walker and Thomas create a family unit with Beans full of love, devotion and the anxiousness for each other’s safety that those emotions inspire, while Stephanie Roth Haberle brings a bit of uncomfortable levity as Mavis’ maskless, irritable neighbor who natters about “fucking idiot sheeple.” She’s just one of the numerous recognizable signifiers Mitton scatters throughout THE HARBINGER; he also freshens up the inevitable scenes of our protagonists seeking help from an on-line expert by having this demonologist (Laura Heisler) constantly interrupted by her kids, who are stuck at home with her.

Details like that are part of the rich background Mitton establishes for his malevolent force to play against, and for which he has created a fully thought-out mythology whose specifics pay dividends right up until the chilling final moment. For all these many components, there’s nothing overelaborated about THE HARBINGER, and despite its focus on such a traumatic period of our very recent past, none of it feels like a gratuitous downer. In a sense, there’s a positive undertone to the movie, given how our life situation has improved since the days depicted here–even as this scenario keeps you on consistent edge regarding whether its principals will survive to see those better days.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and in addition to his work for RUE MORGUE, he has been a longtime writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. He has also written for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM,, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM, MOVIEMAKER and others. He is the author of the AD NAUSEAM books (1984 Publishing) and THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press), and he has contributed documentaries, featurettes and liner notes to numerous Blu-rays, including the award-winning feature-length doc TWISTED TALE: THE UNMAKING OF "SPOOKIES" (Vinegar Syndrome).