Starring: Gabby Beans, Emily Davis, Raymond Anthony Thomas, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Myles Walker
Written and Directed by: Andy Mitton
Even when I can manage to wake up, I’m still in a fucking nightmare. – Mavis
One Friday morning in March 2020, I awakened from surgery to discover the world had ended. A single story had dominated yesterday’s news: There was a new, extremely infectious, and fatal illness, dubbed the COVID-19 virus, sweeping the planet. I learned the United States had switched to “lockdown” to suppress the growing number of COVID-19 victims. For better or worse, travel restrictions, mask mandates, and stay-at-home orders were the new normal.
Life under lockdown brought fears of more than illness. Many workers had to stay home. This caused them to lose wages and increased housing and financial insecurities. Schools were closed, creating added burdens on parents. Critical shortages of resources and supplies caused a run on stores as people hoarded whatever they could. Amid these crises, a growing chorus of angry voices began broadcasting wild conspiracy theories. They said the pandemic was an attempt to watch citizens and control their actions and was an excuse to turn America into an authoritarian state.
The combined healthcare crisis and public unrest caused the United States to become a nation of the traumatized. The effects of this are coming to light less than three years later. Studies show that, at the societal level, the long-term effects of living with trauma include increased individual and collective fear, feelings of vulnerability and humiliation, and heightened vigilance for fresh threats. Writer/director Andy Mitton (The Witch in the Window) equates these real-life fears of living in a world ravaged by an out-of-control illness and an increasingly fragmented, self-centered, and violent population, to supernatural terrors in his newest movie, The Harbinger (2022).
Set in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, Monique (Gabby Beans), her brother Lyle (Myles Walker), and her father (Raymond Anthony Thomas) are adjusting to the “new normal” at home in Binghamton, New York. The men object when Monique announces she is going to the city to visit a friend, Mavis (Emily Davis), who is struggling in isolation. Horrible nightmares lock Mavis into sleep paralysis, and she self-harms to wake up. A giant bird-masked figure, reminiscent of the medieval plague doctor, chases her in her dreams. This monster tells her it intends to erase her from existence so thoroughly that even her loved ones will forget her.
Monique’s journey to Mavis is fraught with many dangers. She is exposed to a sick child and meets a paranoid and angry anti-masker who tries to intimidate her. But these are just the beginning. She learns the space between the dream and waking worlds is narrow, treacherous, and full of traps. Like the viral contagion outside, Mavis’ nightmares infect Monique. In her dreams, she revisits moments of personal upheaval, with one being the deaths of her grandmother and mother. She runs through scenes of desolation, attempting to free herself from the monster. Unable to stand the nightly dreams and hoping to save herself from Mavis’ fate, Monique abandons her friend and goes home. Once there, the family isolates her for their protection.
The Harbinger is a frightening cautionary tale. Watching it recalled the horror of how awful things were. I sat in the sun until I felt better. It is a powerful experience to watch the characters’ hope die and be replaced by a formless and nameless dread. When Lyle tells his father they must keep up hope, the old man says, “Why?”
It is easy to lose sight of the humanity of others in a fragmented society. This is the film’s ultimate warning: When society pulls so far apart that its members forget the ties that bring it together, all are susceptible to becoming erased and forgotten, leaving only unexplained artifacts for the future to puzzle over.
The Harbinger is playing in American and Canadian theaters.