Director Andy Mitton takes on night terrors and social distancing in his new horror movie “The Harbinger,” fresh off its world premiere at Fantasia. Recently picked up by XYZ Films, it was produced by Jay Dunn and Richard W. King.
Originally set to follow his well-received 2018 release “The Witch in the Window” with “Walk with Me into the Darkness,” the U.S. director changed his mind after the pandemic hit.
“It was probably parallel to what everyone else was experiencing when it finally dawned on us that it wasn’t going to be just a two-week thing. Our plans went down the tubes,” he reminisces at the Montreal-based fest.
Starring Gabby Beans, the film shows a woman who, after quarantining with her family, decides to venture out into the world again to help out a friend (Emily Davis), suffering from loneliness and terrifying dreams.
“Back then, I was also in the midst of a horrible bout of nightmares, which is unusual for me. I was afraid of going to sleep at night. It just kept getting worse,” says Mitton.
“I wanted to use our collective dread as fuel, make something that could remind people of ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’ although for me, it’s more of a tonal relative to ‘Jacob’s Ladder.’ It was a primal scream that came out of me.”
Once the cast – which also included Mitton’s wife Laura Heisler and their two children – started rehearsals on Zoom, they would often share their respective stories of loss.
“We were still living in that pre-vaccine moment and we were all feeling it,” he says.
“As a storyteller, you always look for things that connect us. Usually, we are so ‘regional’ in our experience and our history, but this we all shared. To me, it was irresistible.”
As Beans’ protagonist Monique starts spending more time with her friend, despite the warnings of her brother and father, she ‘catches’ her nightmares as well. There is a sinister demonic presence that thrives during that difficult time, feeding off people’s isolation and fear, she finds out. But in Mitton’s film, it’s not about survival – it’s about refusal to be forgotten.
“That’s what I was feeling at the time. There were so many people who really needed help, who were left all alone, and everyone was so concerned with their own bubble,” he says.
Where his last film was sunlit and bright, “The Harbinger” needed to feel more “grounded,” explains Mitton, praising the work of his cinematographer Ludovica Isidori.
“We dared ourselves to make it really, really dark. Now, when we are sharing the stills, everything needs to be brightened up. But it gave you this suffocating feeling.”
While the trauma he shows is still fresh, with many pandemic-set stories struggling to find viewers, Mitton refused to underestimate genre audiences.
“I believe that if you deliver the goods, they are ready to look things right in the eye,” he says.
“Making movies is such an arduous process. This time, I needed to feel that it was worthwhile, that there was meat on the bones of what we were doing. We have all been through a lot. It just felt important.”
As well as finding moments of levity or simple human connection, he says.
“I like the friction of all these elements. I like it when characters approach such situations with some gallows humor.”
“Some of the most traumatic times in my life were also the times when we would suddenly find ourselves in fits of laughter. After all, what else is there to do? It can be surprising what comes out of these moments sometimes. It’s not just sadness and darkness.”
While Mitton already has a “stack” of new scripts waiting to be shot, he is still weighing his options. But humorous content, or even a musical, might be the way to go.
“People would be surprised by some of them. I am developing bloody slashers, horror-comedies. Who knows? Maybe one day I will make my own ‘Little Shop of Horrors’,” he laughs.
“Horror gives you so many options. There is nothing you can’t explore.”
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