The Harbinger follows a close-knit family that gets extra close in the darkest days of Covid: Quarantined together in the suburbs outside a virus and paranoia-ravaged New York, with a vaccine months away and no one sure if they can catch the virus from touching groceries, Monica and her family eke out a safe and relatively unhorrifying existence.
That changes when Mo (an excellent Gaby Beans) is drawn into the city to help a college friend who once helped her through her own crisis. Mavis (Emily Davis) has been having dreams she can’t wake up from, involving a demon who looks like a medieval plague doctor. (You know the ones: They wore long beak-like masks.) Soon Mo is having long nightmares, too. She and Mavis consult a harried demonologist (Laura Heisler, very funny as she tries to Skype without her kids hearing anything disturbing, a very funny touch) who informs them that they’re dealing with a demon who makes people completely disappear. No, not Covid — another demon. Worse.
The film premiered at Fantasia Wednesday night, deeply unsettling an audience of people — some masked, some not — who still remember the stress of whether or not to bleach packages and tense-politely asking strangers to wear masks at all times. Director Andy Milton explained in a Q&A afterward that The Harbinger, like so many recent films, came together quickly after another planned film fell was sidelined by the virus.
“We had a movie we were hoping to put together and like everyone else, our plans fell through,” he said. “And I was pacing the basement one night in a panic thinking, how are we going to move it forward? Is there anything we can do safely? I was suffering a bout of nightmares that was the worst of my life.”
And then, mercifully: “I had one of those nights where the muse came down and hit me over the head with this. The machine of the story fell into place really fast.” He quickly called two of his producers, Richard W. King and Clark Freeman, to start planning.
They assembled their story with ruthless, admirable efficiency: Freeman ultimately ended up playing several roles, including that of the demon. Milton’s wife, Laura Heisler, is the Skyped-in demonologist, and recorded her scenes at her parents’ house over Skype while Milton was quarantined with the rest of his cast and crew.
“My dad was the gaffer,” Heisler said in the Q&A. “My mom — it was ridiculous — was sort of trying to create a lighting situation.” Milton and Heisler’s kids played the kids.
The efforts paid off: XYZ Films recently bought the film, which tells a tight, jarringly familiar story that unfolds mostly in two homes and on a wintry plain. The scares are deep-seated and resonant, pulling from our very recent, dark and collective confrontation of our mortality. Aside from that funny bit with the kids and a cute story about sausages, things are bleak — so bleak that the film’s several solid jump scares are almost a relief from the tension, rather than a cause of it. It’s easier to deal with the sudden appearance of a demon than the lingering questions his presence invites.
Ridiculously, there is also another 2022 horror film called The Harbinger, which I guess is a testament to the general sense of foreboding that’s been in the air for several years. But Milton believes in clinging to hope, no matter how grim things seem. He opened Thursday’s screening by noting what a blessing it was just to be back watching movies together again. Amen.
Main image: Gabby Beans attending a funeral in The Harbinger.