Covid-19 as a narrative tool isn’t entirely new; most expressionist mediums have taken to picking at the still-open wound of the Pandemic in various ways, but there’s a trickier minefield to navigate where the horror genre is concerned. Here Covid-19 isn’t strictly the central core of Andy Mitton’s The Harbinger: it’s the springboard, furthering and solidifying the pervasive restrictive nature of a supernatural tale of isolation and nightmare.

Venturing out of quarantine despite her brother’s (Myles Walker) concerns for their ailing father, Monique (Gabby Beans) travels back to the big city she left behind to help Mavis (Emily Davis), an old friend plagued with nightmares. What she discovers is an entirely different city from the one she left; one of restrictions, obstacles, and isolation. Even surrounded by the warmth she feels reconnecting with Mavis, Monique falls victim to the same nightmares with which her old friend is besieged.

Andy Mitton’s latest work takes the pandemic’s influence and attempts to address a collective trauma rather than the narrative of an individual. Perverting the rousing mentality of sticking together, Mitton leaves our protagonists to the mercy of their own compassion; depicting a world where closeness with another (both in proximity and kinship) leads to suffering. It twists The Harbinger from a supernatural tale into a more engaging snapshot of disorientated contemporary anxieties.

This is where the iconography of the film’s antagonist comes into full play. The plague doctor, an authoritative figure with no face and no identity. Someone who must be listened to and obeyed. The Harbinger infuses this entry into the ghoulish pantheon with a sense of fragility, the extended impact Covid-19 has had beyond mask-wearing and hand sanitiser. Its motivations extend beyond bloodlust, infiltrating nightmares (think Dreamscape meets Wes Craven), robbing them of the tangible line of reality, and preying on how someone’s absence isn’t anything of notice. And in a time of blundered statistics and numbers over names, it illustrates an all too painful allegory.

Distorted and blurred filmmaking pushes elements into the background – almost out of sight – and as cloth-covered bodies are removed from the building, a more sinister impact emerges. Coughs can be heard through the walls, and the soft murmurs and tears echoing through the building do more than enough to generate a sense of unease. This cruel and all-too-familiar idea of the expendable, the forgotten, of the bodies piled high under the distant sirens plays into a much darker film than The Harbinger initially hints at, and it more than takes advantage.

As time elapses, The Harbinger becomes more vicious in its relatability and does so rather subtly, shaken up by the more withdrawn and downplayed performance from initial lead Emily Davis, who manifests a distinctly uncomfortable and practical range of both placation and outright dread. Grounding Davis out is Gabby Beans’ performance as Monique, our secondary protagonist, who elevates themselves to top-billing as the story advances and strives for an authentic performance which demonstrates, quite keenly, the successful path Beans is on.

Loss and death sit on the chest of viewers through the film, and in a twisted sense manifests its antagonist directly into the homes – pushing viewers to face their own experiences. The Harbinger works effectively as a supernatural horror, but if anything, benefits more so from its brick-and-mortar setting as an emotional piece of drama writhing with lethal dread.

Screening on Shudder from Mon 23 Jan 2023