2022 is fast becoming a memorable year for scary stories involving children. From The Innocents, Hatching, Stranger Things 4, and the upcoming The Black Phone, we just can’t get enough of kids placed in dauntingly perilous scenarios. Enter The Harbinger, director Will Klipstine’s indie effort about a family who moves to a small town where their new neighbors begin dying, and they begin to suspect their young daughter (Madeleine McGraw) may be perpetuating the events.
With an almost Firestarter–inspired beginning, we see the Snyder family skipping town shortly after a funeral. The opening sequence shows Daniel Snyder (Klipstine) recovering something from the office of a hanging man. During the funeral, Daniel and Theresa’s (Amanda MacDonald) daughter, Rosalie, spouts some off-putting gothic prose of despair to the deceased man’s widow, worthy of an entry in a teenager’s emo diary. As they exit the town, we begin to sense that Rosalie is not only void of empathy, but she may be possessed, and Daniel and Theresa are moving to protect their child.
It isn’t long before the Snyders make an impression in their new town. Rosalie standing on the edge of a playground finds a way to instill fear in all the other children there. Meanwhile, nosy neighbors inform the Snyders that they’re always watching, leaving Daniel and Theresa concerned about what they’ve come to the town to do. People begin dying in the town the day after the family shows up, causing their neighbors to ostracize the family. Meanwhile, dead animals and messages insisting The Snyders kill themselves start appearing. With the situation spiraling out of control, The Snyders seek the assistance of a Native American seer (Irene Bedard) who might be able to help them recover their daughter’s soul. The price comes with a tremendous sacrifice—literally and ritualistically.
As far as supernatural thrillers go, The Harbinger has a hook thanks to Klipstine and co-writer Amy Mills’ plot structure which relies heavily on lore and mystery. Honestly, I can usually pick out where a film is going in minutes, but The Harbinger brings its A-game in creating a complex web of intrigue. It’s easy to see that Klipstine and Mills are fans of old-school noir and horror films. The setups in the film draw inspiration from many movies such as Poltergeist, The Omen, Sinister, The Exorcist, Phantasm, and some paranoia elements of the Hitchcock films. One of the early poster images for the film showed a man carrying his briefcase under a streetlight providing a comparison to William Friedkin’s classic film.
The only name I knew attached to The Harbinger was that of the young Madeleine McGraw. The child actress is becoming more noticeable, having secured roles in The Mandela Effect, American Sniper, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and The Black Phone. McGraw is understated here as a corrupted innocent and soulless vessel, forced to see the world through the eyes of the devil. Her stoic and minimalist emotional portrayal is, at times, truly disturbing. As horror fans, we can’t wait to see what weird thing she’s going to say or do next.
There are a lot of fun, scary sequences along the way as well. Set designers and choreographers on the film probably had a fascinating time filling a backyard with animal carcasses or having a demon jump into Daniel and Teresa’s bed. However, as eerie as many of The Harbinger’s sequences are, I found the film’s score to sway. Sometimes the music gripped me tensely for a moment. Other times, I felt thrown by the stylistic disconnection of the experience. The Harbinger’s manic score rotates between Lifetime movie of the week and a stringy pulse-pounding theatrical experience.
Much of The Harbinger behaves similarly. While some scenes employ a dark atmosphere, especially at the start of the film, others feel tonally detached, making for a somewhat convoluted experience. For instance, the movie crafts a beautiful MacGuffin in getting us to worry about the Snyder’s daughter, but it doesn’t stay attached to Rosaline, and Daniel becomes the film’s compass. Daniel begins seeing a trench-coated figure wherever he goes, becomes the center of a local cop’s murder investigation, and starts having visions of the town from another time. The Harbinger becomes unfocused, chasing too many ideas during its runtime. There’s a lot to keep track of while the story unravels, and in The Harbinger’s case, it swings wide. While switching gears at one point, it abruptly submits itself to an Indiana Jones ghost story with a cartoonish monologuing villain and uses a Disney musical-like song too. In a way, it kind of has something for everybody.
Now, that’s the funny thing about the movie. Despite its flaws, I didn’t hate it for what it was trying to do. In fact, many of The Harbinger’s tactics felt similar to those from PG horror films from the ’80s. The Poltergeist films specifically come to mind because, like Carol Anne, the Snyders are also haunted by the supernatural wherever they go. Not to mention both movies share connections to sacred Native burial grounds and Floating Hawk (Bedard) acts as the family’s hands-off Zelda Rubinstein. Still, for a film that roots itself in Native American folklore, it has some undeniable Christian overtones. I suppose that tends to be the case when a film veers into demonic territory, but it is an odd theological mesh.
2022 may also end up becoming a banner year for Native Americans in horror as well. With titles like AMC’s Dark Winds and Hulu’s upcoming Prey, Indigenous people of America are primed to show up on screen much more this summer than in past summers. Something truly remarkable about The Harbinger is the diverse crew it’s assembled. Shot in Minnesota, the film employed many Native Americans as actors and crew, three Native executive producers, and a Native storyline set to expand over the course of two additional films. Even more admirable, the nonprofit Veteran Films program was able to train the local talent in their positions as well, ensuring we’ll see more Native American representation in film and on sets in the future.
Overall, The Harbinger has some great ideas but rushes excitedly to show them off instead of nurturing them with foreboding doom. Some of the feature is incredibly fun, while some of it is head-scratchingly strange, especially as it melds elements of Christianity with mystical Native weaponry. I would still contend to give this indie a chance when it comes out because its journey rides the line between being a commendable horror picture and an out-there B-movie experience. There’s enough mystique within The Harbinger to create a wild and enjoyable ride, even if the end is a bit of a stretch. Regardless, I loved some of the film’s crazy climax, including a stairs-to-hell effect inside a Phantasm-esque location, and I’ll be interested in seeing what the two planned sequels bring in the years to come. If you’re into movies like The Prophecy (1995), The Unholy, and The Possession, I think you should add The Harbinger to your watchlist.
The Harbinger will have its World Premiere this Friday in LA at the 2022 Dances with Films Festival.