In the latest film adaptation of one of his works, Stephen King again demonstrates his uncanny knack for deriving tension from the unlikeliest sources. In this case, it’s technology, specifically cell phones, one of which proves an instrument of communication between the living and the dead. Unfortunately, despite its intriguing premise, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone lacks the necessary ingredient to make it truly memorable; it simply isn’t very scary.
Based on a novella from King’s 2020 collection If It Bleeds, the film, premiering on Netflix, takes place in the sort of seemingly idyllic, small New England town that has provided the backdrop for so many of his works. In the prologue set in 2003, we’re introduced to the young boy Craig (Colin O’Brien), who is left to be raised alone by his loving, working-class father (Joe Tippett) after his mother dies. Not long after, the reclusive Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), the richest man in town, becomes impressed after Craig delivers a Bible reading in church. He offers him $5 an hour to come to his imposing mansion to read books aloud to him, including such kid-unfriendly titles as Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Heart of Darkness.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone
The Bottom Line
A missed call.
Cut to several years later, when the now teenage Craig (Jaeden Martell, veteran of the previous King adaptations It and its sequel) and his elderly employer have developed a friendly, if not exactly warm, bond. Mr. Harrigan even routinely presents him with his standard gift of a lottery ticket, one of which turns out to be a $3,000 winner. The grateful Craig in turn gives Mr. Harrigan an iPhone, which the confirmed Luddite professes to have no interest in. But when Craig demonstrates that the device can provide up-to-the-minute stock reports, the billionaire investor becomes an instant convert. They even share a ringtone, Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man,” the title of which eventually takes on an eerie connotation.
Mr. Harrigan does have the foresight to see the potential dangers of an unfettered internet. He delivers a long speech about its potentially harmful consequences for the media and politics, among other things, that comes across as uncannily prescient (but was, of course, written with the benefit of hindsight). You can tell it’s the theme that inspired King to write the story in the first place, with the horror elements brought on to make it narratively palatable.
The problem is that the subsequent plot developments, meant to be harrowing, aren’t rendered in sufficiently chilling fashion by director/screenwriter John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side). Mr. Harrigan dies suddenly, leaving Craig a substantial amount of money to get an education and pursue his dream of becoming a screenwriter (you don’t have to imagine what Mr. Harrigan thought about that idea). The grateful young man surreptitiously puts his employer’s phone in the casket with his body, as a final token of their friendship.
As one is sometimes prone to do with a departed friend or loved one, Craig impulsively calls Mr. Harrigan’s phone and leaves him messages in moments of distress, such as when he falls victim to a creepy bully (Cyrus Arnold) at school. It’s when he begins receiving text messages in reply and the bully is soon found mysteriously dead that he becomes alarmed that his former employer may be assisting him in malevolent fashion from beyond the grave.
The recent horror film hit The Black Phone trafficked in similar ideas, but in far more terrifying fashion. Hancock simply doesn’t seem very interested in mining the concept for its chilling aspects, which, to be fair, weren’t particularly well developed in King’s novella either. Instead, the film mainly comes across as a contemplative portrait of an unlikely friendship and a coming-of-age story in which a young man learns the perils of getting what you wish for.
The movie still has some impact, because Sutherland uses his veteran’s skills to render his curmudgeonly Mr. Harrigan as a character out of a Dickens novel, and Martell, who has consistently excelled in such films as St. Vincent, Midnight Specialand The Book of Henry, makes us truly care about his sensitive, troubled teen. This is the rare King adaptation that proves less interesting the more horrific the story gets.
Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Ryan Murphy Productions
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Jaeden Martell, Joe Tippett, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cyrus Arnold, Colin O’Brien, Thomas Francis Murphy, Peggy J. Scott
Director-screenwriter: John Lee Hancock
Producers: Ryan Murphy, Jason Blum, Carla Hacken
Executive producers: Stephen King, Amy Sayres, Chris McCumber, Jeremy Gold, Scott Greenberg, Alexis Woodhall, Eric Kovtun, Scott Robertson
Director of photography: John Schwartzman
Production designer: Michael Corenblith
Editor: Robert Franzen
Costume designer: Daniel Orlandi
Composer: Javier Navarrete
Casting: Terri Taylor, Sarah Domeier Lindo
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 44 minutes
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