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The Harbinger

****
2022

‘…The Harbinger resurrects the ambiguous sense of menace behind the plague doctor garb; it’s a disturbing, modern take on mythic horror, and one of the scariest films of the year…’

Yikes! It’s notable that while the overall cinema box-office has taken a pummelling in 2022, horror films like Black Phone, Barbarian, Halloween Ends and Smile coined it in; teenagers will always want to test themselves and try their luck in the dark, and horror films provide exactly the kind of pre-packaged emotional challenge a young person enjoys. But horror films don’t have to be just a string of jump scares; writer/director Andy Mitton’s The Harbinger marks itself out as one of 2022’s most significant genre entries on several counts.

And let’s not mince words about why; The Harbinger may evoke a few memories for dreamlike horror, from the Cabinet of Dr Cagliari to Nightmare on Elm Street, but it’s very much an original film that draws on a real-life tragedy, the pandemic that never quits. So we’re talking social distancing, mask etiquette, maintaining family bubbles, alcohol rubs in cars, and a thriller set during the jittery initial stages of 2020; if all that’s a trigger for you, you’d better find something else to watch. But horror, smart horror, has always fed on what’s happening in society now, and while other genres struggle to catch up, The Harbinger goes directly to that ominous, dangerous place that few others dare. Gabby Beans plays Monique, who leaves behind her family bubble to come to the rescue of her old friend Mavis (Emily Davis), who is having dreams so bad that she can’t hold down a job. Monique is keen to help, but sleeping in the same bed as Mavis doesn’t half their troubles, it unexpectedly doubles them, and soon the grim figure of The Harbinger, who haunts Mavis’s dreams, seems to be coming after Monique too…

Bad dreams can make good cinema; The Harbinger recalls Dead of Night’s framing story in depicting the nightmare that never ends; the pandemic is merely ‘the cherry on a sh*t sundae’ as one character observes. Opening with a startling image of fresh flowers on a stone statue of an angel, The Harbinger is a literate, well-characterised and genuinely harrowing film that upends dream-movie clichés and forms something fresh about the pandemic that it seems impossible to wake up from; the fake news era has ended the notion of shared reality. The Harbinger also revisits a notion or two from Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby; an in-the-know expert talks about how an idea can potentially go viral and endanger all who encounter it. But while Mitton’s film delivers in the political way that the recent Candyman reboot didn’t, it also delivers wounding, alarming jump scares (and the most bloodcurdling shriek that my poor cats have ever heard), largely through the sinister plague-doctor form of the Harbinger itself.

I’ve been using the image of the plague-doctor as my avatar for years; it long pre-dated the pandemic, and was never meant to reflect a specific meaning in connection with the virus. The plague doctor is something connected to my spiritual home of Venice, and to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, a sinister authority figure that can’t quite be identified. Like Ben Johnson’s artwork The Keeper, which I used to regularly visit Glasgow Art Gallery in Kelvingrove to see, it’s an image where the mask itself becomes more important, and imposing, than the person supposedly behind it. As a film, The Harbinger resurrects the ambiguous sense of menace behind the plague doctor garb; it’s a disturbing, modern take on mythic horror, and one of the scariest films of the year….

Thanks to XYZ Films, who release THE HARBINGER, the latest film from Andy Mitton (The Witch in the Window), in cinemas and on VOD on December 1st 2022.

 

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  1. So after you mentioned Eyes Wide Shut, I went back and watched it with an open mind. I’d seen it before, but didn’t remember it making much of an impact.

    Can definitely see it’s merits. Truth vs. Dreams. How honest should we be?

    But here is something I do wonder – why did Alice tell him about her fantasy man? Did she want to hurt him? Is she unhappy? Was she really just high an oblivious to the impact it had on him?

    I wonder…..

    • My mind is blown by the men who lead their kids away at the end being the same men we see at the start. I didn’t see that the first time around…but the answer to your question depends on whether Alice was messing with him, which I think she was…

  2. Sounds like a good one and YouTube so easily accessible. Though why such an original idea can’t get a cinema release at a time when cinemas are crying out for genuine originality is beyond me.

    • That is the 64 thousand dollar question right now. I’m hoping the change of direction at Disney indicates a sea change, but right now, much of the best content is to be viewed at home, and cinema cannot win against these odds.

      • Sigh. I hope not. It looks like the cinema tactic is to make individual prices so high it encourages people to buy the monthly disocunt card which ensures regular monthly incomeand maybe forces people to go more often rather than not use the card.

    • You are on the right track. As I said, this is what I thought the Candyman reboot would be like; spare, urban yet mythic and unrelenting. Not for casual viewers, but worth seeking out if you dig the idea…

  3. Just like that crazy-weird witch movie you were talking about recently, I’m tempted to watch this.

    But I know my limits so I’ll pass with some regret.

    And it is strange that horror films have been the only thing to thrive in the movie theater. I thought kids raised on streaming would never go to the movies to see anything….guess you never know.

    • The scary witch movie was intense, but this one is easier to commend to cinema experts like yourself. Light on blood, but lots of meaning, and the overall effect is disturbing, like a bad dream. If you see one horror film this year…

      • Okay, I’m adding this to my list of films you’ve written about that I want to watch (currently at 15…yikes! time to get watching). I’ve got people coming to stay at Christmas – I’ll watch this in broad daylight with a house full of people to protect me at night!!!

        • You can vacate the mental space required for Stardust and How To Lose a Guy, now that you have seen the error of your ways!

      • This one sounds a bit like plague doc in The Watcher in the Woods, not version with Bette Davis, but one with Angelica Huston… adding it to my list for a late night watch. Thanks, grand critique!

        • A pleasure. This one is a strong recommend. And I’ll seek out the other Watcher, I should do a ‘plague doctor’ greatest hits video!

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