As we all seek to make meaning out of the unimaginable death toll of the still ongoing pandemic that has forever reshaped the world as we know it, art is one of the primary places we turn to. It can be reflective, challenging, and even revealing about the collective trauma we are facing. There have been a whole host of films that have tried to grapple with this, a few insightfully and most very much less so. The horror film The Harbinger finds itself in the middle of this, seeking to use a paranormal haunting as an allegory for the widespread loss of life and fear of the early days of the pandemic. While sporadically interesting and occasionally bold in its visual horror, the overall experience becomes hindered by the writing. It is a film that feels driven by whim without any greater wisdom or depth of character to latch onto.
It begins with the troubled Mavis (Emily Davis) who is having a near breakdown in the confines of her Queens apartment. It is more than just the pandemic as something sinister is coming to haunt her in her dreams. When a building manager checks in on her, she says that she has basically no one to turn to. This is both because her family is “on lockdown all the way in Seattle” and also likely wouldn’t come to see her anyway even if it was deemed safe. Thus, with few options for support, she reaches out to her old friend Monique (Gabby Beans) and asks her to come to stay with her. The two have a history as Mavis was there for Monique when she was in a crisis of her own. This is delivered in brief exposition, a recurring way of communicating that will become a problem the more it is used as a narrative fallback. For now, we see that Monique is willing to drop everything and go be with her friend. This baffles and frustrates her family who has been in lockdown with her for some time. In particular, her brother Ronald (Raymond Anthony Thomas) expresses his anger with his sister over a birthday dinner for their father who seems to be somewhat unwell. This familial relationship is subsequently made largely secondary to the one Monique has with Mavis.
There is an element of the film that almost feels like a time capsule of those early days of fear and uncertainty. Both quiz each other on whether they can remove their masks, needing to hear from the other that they have both been limiting their potential exposure. When Monique first arrives at the apartment, there is a child that is coughing and who she makes eye contact with for a brief moment. Later, as you hear his coughing get worse in the room above, there is the question about whether she has been exposed. Monique also gets into a brief verbal confrontation with a neighbor that has turned to COVID denial out of fear and anger. All these details feel like they could provide a solid foundation for a potentially intriguing portrait of how the pandemic had an impact on two friends. However, as Mavis says early on, the pandemic is merely “the cherry on the shit sundae” for her. Without giving away too much, the nightmares she has been having are starting to consume her life, forever disrupting the stability she once had. Mavis now fears that she won’t be able to make it much longer. While she hopes Monique will help her through it, we soon discover that these nightmares themselves must also be contagious. They both begin to see the menacing figure of a plague doctor, complete with the elongated mask and robe, that haunts the apartment whenever they go to sleep.
All of this sounds like it could be the start of a chilling story told within the confines of the apartment. Instead, the whole experience feels cold and distant in all the wrong ways. Dialogue can often feel clunky, stilted in a way as it skews towards exposition without any greater substance to it. While we are told that Mavis and Monique are meant to be quite close, we don’t really get that feeling. There is the throwaway line about when the tables were turned in the past, though that is the extent of their relationship getting developed. There is no texture to their interactions as it goes through the motions without any greater sense of emotion or connection. Instead, the film feels very driven by the plot. The most egregious example is when the duo decides to have a conversation over Zoom with a demonologist. The discussion they have ends up feeling circular, often seeming as though the actors recorded their sides of the conversation separately. This makes it so the scene has no natural flow or pacing, though this could also stem from the dialogue itself being rather forced. When a character asks for clarification on something only to get corrected and then told something that says the same thing they just did, it robs it of any tension. It is one scene of many that provides us with just enough details to drive the story forward though left no real impact of note on the characters.
This is all rather unfortunate as there are some rather striking scenes that are genuinely well-constructed. Nightmares are great cinematic fuel for playing around with haunting imagery and there were moments in The Harbinger that really catch your attention. One noteworthy one comes in the confines of a truck and a silent figure whose design will leave your skin crawling. Even as you can tell that they are working within the confines of a budget, it still leaves an impact. It just is inescapable that this impact is dulled by the haphazard construction of the rest of the film. Scenes are often staged awkwardly and cut too early, ripping us away from potentially emotional moments to just keep plodding onward. One particularly jarring moment comes as Monique is talking with her family who we had been seeing less and less of. Just when it seems like we are potentially getting somewhere deeper with their relationship, the conversation is cut abruptly short to a disconnected shot elsewhere. When accompanied by a dropping in of a generic score that doesn’t gracefully rise so much as it just clumsily falls into place, it takes you out of what should be a key character moment that instead just falls away.
There is a good film in The Harbinger that we catch glimpses of in moments of horror and the conversations we do get to see play out. It just is struggling to break through the uncertain confines of the story it is trapped in. Horror as metaphor like this is completely fair game, though the film remains uncertain of how to fully convey the emotion of each situation. The pandemic was and still is a nightmare, full of constant terror that we could be wiped from existence forever. A film grappling with this mortal threat through allegory should feel more devastating as it looks into the abyss. This one just never seems to know what to find there. Is it about a family trying to deal with an existential threat? A friendship built around shared support against terror? A reckoning with grief and loss? There are flashes of the film trying to be each of these things, though it never discovers anything particularly insightful or engaging to say about any of them. This isn’t to say a film needs to say anything, but to invoke the pandemic in your art should feel more emotionally meaningful than it does here. While observing the rituals of Monique’s family trying to keep it together while living in an uncertain time is initially tragic in its simplicity, they fade so far into the background that it loses sight of any greater connection to them. Even an ending conversation, overflowing with a grim pessimism, lands with an empty thud when there is nothing else holding up.