The notion that film and television fiction is set in an undefined present day took a hit during the lockdown phase of the ongoing pandemic, which made even the most down-to-earth soap opera inhabit a parallel universe where the issues the audience were engaging with on a day-to-day fashion didn’t exist. Oddly, the only mainstream films to manage a real sense of the way the entire world tries to ignore a world-changing event are the Marvel movies and their treatment of a five-year blip that gets decreasingly mentioned as folks just don’t want to talk about it. Early in the pandemic, Host won plaudits by being the first off the mark to use lockdown as a setting, the suddenly-everywhere zoom technology as a spin on found footage and have empty streets, masks, slight coughs and social distancing as frisson-producing signifiers of realism and horror. Since then, there have been a trickle of projects like the on-the-nose The Lockdown Hauntings – but horror, like most other genres, just prefers to forget about the elephant and get on with whatever else it has on its mind, even though it’s the genre uniquely suited to addressing the climate of freeform fear and vast social change that characterised 2020-20??
Writer-director Andy Mitton, of The Witch in the Window, has made a horror film that really does go there – with no jokes about hoarding toilet paper, though it does wring some black humour from the traditional video call to a demonologist (think Vincent d’Onofrio in Sinister) as the expert has to cope with two hyperactive small children while dishing out doom and makes a running joke/irritant of the aggressive, maskless, sheeple-despising, ever-complaining neighbour (Stephanie Roth Haberle) with the fillip that her arc does go the way we might expect. In an apartment in Queens, Mavis (Emily Davis) has quietly gone mad through isolation – tormented by her personal demons, she has apparently laid herself open to being tormented by an actual demon. The Harbinger sports that Plague Doctor look which has cropped up (understandably) in quite a few recent horrors (outliers – The Poughkeepsie Tapes, 2007, The Sick House, 2008) and is a dream-invader, but his actual m.o. is more complicated and spiritually devastating than the Freddy Krueger brand of slashing. Mavis reaches out to Monique (Gabby Beans), a college friend who is in a bubble with her brother (Myles Walker) and father (Ray Anthony Thomas) in upstate New York, and Monique feels obligated to make the hazardous trip to help out. Which, of course, means bringing Monique into the orbit of the Harbinger – and into a series of bad dreams. Mitton several times uses the American Werewolf dream-within-a-dream rugpull, but makes a point that waking life has become so much an unending, monotonously nerve-fraying, low-level nightmare that there’s no secure reality to wake up to.
Mitton is still under the radar as a horror auteur, but he has a distinctive, whispery, shadowy approach that connects – he avoids showy stuff and is prepared to let quietly fading away be as horrifying as any gore sequence. The Harbinger turns on an interesting, complicated relationship – Monique genuinely owes Mavis for being there when she was in a bad place, but there’s a power-imbalance in the guilt-tripping … Monique (who’s black) has a supportive family while Mavis (who’s white) is isolated and estranged, and Monique’s decision to help her friend is made at the expense of the months of deprivations and precautions her brother and father have made. Monique arrives prepared to be a friend to someone in psychological distress, but has to be argued into accepting the supernatural – Mavis insists she come up with a course of action predicated on everything she has told Monique being true, rather than treat her as delusional – and even then finding that there’s not a lot she can do other than be pulled into a very bad situation that arguably is all the worse for her involvement. As in The Witch in the Window, Mitton has an acute sense of supernatural terror as it relates to a credible, relatable everyday situation – how far should you go to help a friend in need who may be terminally self-destructive? Given multiple conflicting obligations, which should one honour? Beans and Davis are both excellent in what ought to be breakout roles.
Haberle’s face was familiar, so I looked her up: she’s stuck in my mind for a vivid, non-speaking role as a slave-catching boogeywoman in hallucinatory flashbacks of a terrific episode of Homicide Life on the Street (‘Sins of the Father’).