Horror as a genre is especially well suited to stories about isolated people in claustrophobic spaces. So it was kind of inevitable there would be a glut of features along those lines made during the most locked-down periods of the Covid-19 pandemic, when safety measures restricted cast and crew sizes as well as location use. And yet few of the resulting movies even mention Covid, let alone address the abundant anxieties and fears surrounding it all. Writer-director Andy Mitton’s simply executed feature – apparently shot in 2021 but set in the more dangerous, pre-vaccine months of 2020 – inventively mashes up pandemic panic and supernatural danger to make a potent, truly creepy horror package, garnished with naturalism and sly, strategic moments of humour. There are flaws, sure, and logical lacunae here and there, but it lingers in the memory long after the final credits roll.
Protagonist Mo (Gabby Beans, terrific) is snugly set up in a bubble with her father (Myles Walker) and brother (Ray Anthony Thomas) in a snow-lapped corner of upstate New York while the pandemic rages in the cities beyond. Out of the blue she gets a call from an old college friend, Mavis (Emily Davis, also excellent), who has no one else to turn to for help. Mavis is suffering from horrific nightmares which she struggles to wake up from even though she knows she’s dreaming and tries to self-harm to break the spell. Mo feels she owes Mavis a solid because of a good deed she did Mo years ago, so Mo risks travelling to Queens to stay with Mavis in an apartment block where every cough heard through the walls and ambulance heard in the distance foretells doom.
In fact, the ghostly figure that is haunting Mavis, who takes the form of a medieval plague doctor with a long, bird-shaped mask, calls himself the Harbinger. That’s according to the demonologist the women consult via a Zoom call hoping for a solution once Mo also starts having nightmares featuring the Harbinger. Incidentally, this scene showcases a genius bit of black comedy: the demonologist insists they all talk in cheery voices throughout their conversation, no matter how terrifying the subject matter is, because her young children are in the room and they’re tuned more into tone of voice rather than what’s being said.
In the end, the Harbinger isn’t that notable a bogeyman, the gore level is minimal, and the jumps and twists are pretty predictable. What adds potency is the ominous conceit that the Harbinger doesn’t just steal people away in their sleep: he wipes the memory of them away from other people, leaving only tiny traces behind. That meshes nicely with the sudden absences when people started dying in big numbers, the “brain fog” survivors experienced, and the general paranoia of those times – amazingly, only a couple of years ago.
• The Harbinger is released on 23 January on digital platforms.