Plague doctors are centuries out of fashion, but the iconic outfit still endures: the long coat, the goggled eyes, the mask with a long, birdlike beak. The costume distorts an otherwise familiar silhouette, turning a person into an interchangeable inhuman creature. The Pathologic games use that design as a clear starting point for characters tied to a plague: The outfit’s surreal, theatrical qualities don’t just obscure who’s underneath; they raise the question of whether players are encountering one individual, or many.
Andy Mitton’s movie The Harbinger emphasizes that unsettling quality by turning a plague-doctor figure into a horror-movie icon. (That’s what distinguishes it from 2022’s other horror movie called The Harbinger, about a creepy kid.) The plague doctor literally haunts the dreams of Mavis (Emily Davis), a woman sheltering in her Queens apartment during the COVID-19 pandemic. It tells her that it means to take her away forever, to ensure that everyone forgets her. And it seems capable of acting on that threat — the tall, hollow-eyed shape gives no hint that there might be a human being underneath. Mitton is more fixated on drama than horror, but he uses the plague doctor concept as a dreadful omen, crafting a powerfully bleak story that uses the pandemic to explore the importance of human connection, and to consider what happens when it disappears.
After one particularly distressing haunting, Mavis reaches out to request help from her old roommate Monique (Gabby Beans). Mo is dutifully quarantining with her brother (Myles Walker) and father (Ray Anthony Thomas). These are the early days of the pandemic, when everyone is still careful, still getting used to the safety protocols and the new normal. But being careful is lonely, even if you’re isolated with other people. That might be why Mo so readily leaves her bubble, running off to help an old friend she hasn’t seen in ages.
Mavis is an outstretched hand from the world outside, a reminder to Mo that she still matters to someone outside her immediate family. She isn’t just acting out of recklessness or boredom; the bond between the two women runs deeper than what’s immediately obvious.
Davis and Beans have a believable, slightly distant dynamic that colors the relationship between Mavis and Mo. They were close once, and Mo needed to rely on Mavis for help, but now they’re divided by years of no contact, as well as the caution of pandemic protocol. Mo is happy to repay her debt to Mavis now that their roles have reversed, but where Mo was struggling with depression in college, Mavis insists her problems stem from an outside force. She’s often unable to wake up, trapped for days in all-consuming dreams. Her mind has become a prison overseen by a malevolent entity. Before long, Mo begins seeing the same figure.
The Harbinger draws clear parallels between the entity haunting Mo and the way illness spreads, as though Mo contracted something by stepping into Mavis’ cloud of despair. But whatever the harbinger is, it isn’t just a standard horror movie metaphor for COVID or mental illness. The entity has physical consequences that affect real time and space: When it comes for someone, it plucks them out of reality entirely, as if the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind process was a jump scare. The victim disappears from the memory of everyone they ever knew, as if they never existed at all. It’s the ultimate, terrifying realization of dying alone.
Unlike so many recent COVID movies that simply use the pandemic as contemporary wallpaper, Mitton’s choice of setting isn’t arbitrary. He portrays a constant existential terror that’s amplified by the pandemic trappings until it’s practically tangible. That fear grounds the story in a specific reality that cuts through the usual intellectual remove of watching a film. It even adds a new dimension to otherwise-familiar scenes, like when Mavis and Mo seek advice from an expert on demons, and her children answer the video call because they’re all quarantined at home together. Her subsequent worry about what the kids might overhear is a funny, mundane touch that makes it all the more chilling when she urgently demands that Mo and Mavis destroy every means they’ve used to ask for help. There’s nothing to be done for them, she implies — the only thing left is to keep them from infecting other people.
One of the most striking things about The Harbinger is that it features so little of the friction that’s typical in isolation stories. Mavis dismisses Mo’s idea about seeing a therapist to discuss the creature haunting her, but Mitton otherwise skips over the usual tedious “this can’t be happening” conflicts. The two women aren’t at each other’s throats because they’re cooped up together, either. If anything, they both seem glad for the company. This is meant to be a positive relationship, where Mavis has done what anyone would do and reached out for the sort of help she gave to Mo once, and Mo, as a decent person, has responded.
But that doesn’t matter, because the pandemic has changed the world, and this terrible entity exists to take advantage of that fact. Values and social norms have been inverted, and basic human connection is now a conduit it can use to spread. This idea reaches its terrifying apex in Mo’s dreams, where she sees herself as a child, with her mother comforting her. When she notices the entity watching them from the corner of the room, even this primal form of connection twists away from reassurance and warmth.
That’s the most disturbing aspect of the film: how ordinary the characters’ dreams seem, and how authentic their emotions appear. A few dilapidated buildings aside, the dreams never totally morph into a haunted house of personalized horrors. The harbinger hides under mundanity as well as honest help and support, wearing it like a mask while the darkness burrows inside. With The Harbinger, Andy Mitton depicts a world where closeness to others is everyone’s undoing, which turns a standard haunting tale into a profound time capsule of modern dread.
The Harbinger is out now in theaters, on VOD, and via digital rental on Amazon Video.