When reading Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, a sharp and unsurprisingly superb new novella by Stephen King, one will naturally predict that an on-screen adaptation will bring with it the same level of scares, insight, and fun. Sadly, the new Netflix film, directed by The Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock and produced by camp horror aficionado Ryan Murphy, is nothing more than another disappointing take on a top-rate work from the beloved author.
Set in Maine (where else?), Mr. Harrigan’s Phone follows Craig (Jaeden Martell), a young boy who is enlisted by a mysterious billionaire, Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), to read him old classics as his eyesight wanes. The reading sessions go on for years, and the odd pair become close – so close, in fact, that Craig buys Mr. Harrigan his first-ever iPhone. Harrigan becomes infatuated with his device, which leads Craig to stuff it into his coffin when he dies. Craig mourns his death, and the old man rests peacefully underground. The end.
Just kidding! Not long after Harrigan’s casket is closed, Craig decides to start leaving him voicemails lamenting about his high school bullies. And then bad stuff starts happening to the bullies. Coincidence? Maybe not. The moment we realize that Harrigan is somehow using his phone from the grave, the film hints that it might finally be ready to give us what we’ve been waiting for: macabre horror and jump-scares galore. But over the span of its 115-minute runtime, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone sadly provides no such thing.
Indeed, it’s difficult to think of a horror movie that is less scary than Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. Any potentially chilling moment – such as Craig finding out something awful mysteriously happened to one of his bullies, for example – is undermined by an overly expositional voice-over from Craig, who explains every detail of what’s going on to death. There are only a meager few jump-scares attempted in the film, but even those are underwhelming. They mainly just consist of Craig’s phone ringing, which, unsurprisingly, isn’t enough to make you break a sweat.
But even if you remove Mr. Harrigan’s Phone‘s attempted horror, what’s left still comes across as hollow. Underneath it all, this is a story about the dangers of technology – about the risks of having access to a surplus of information and about the isolation inherent in holding that little rectangle in your hand. But most elements of the film are far too improbable for any of these messages to ring true to its audience.
Let’s start with the titular Mr. Harrigan. Played with a gentle sternness by Sutherland in the best performance of the film, the character never amounts to more than an underwritten caricature. We never get to know anything about Harrigan beyond the fact that he’s a mysterious, callous billionaire with glistening white hair, expensive suits, and an affinity for old books. When all is said and done, we are never given a reason to think of him as a compelling character, let alone a compelling ghost.
And because of this, his relationship with Craig (the center point of the story, mind you) suffers greatly. Craig is torn up when Harrigan dies, but why? What does Craig see in Harrigan? What does Harrigan see in Craig? Sadly, Hancock doesn’t seem interested in giving us any insight into the matter.
But Harrigan isn’t the only character in the film that comes off as mostly unrealistic. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone‘s main antagonist, Craig’s bully Kenny Yankovich (Cyrus Arnold), is so cliche that he might as well have come up to Craig on the first day of school and said, “give me your lunch money.” Scruffy-haired, snarling, and comically cruel, he certainly doesn’t add any sense of reality to the film.
The most (only?) realistic character in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is Craig, but he trades cartoonishness for dullness. Mostly passive and forlorn, he’s not a particularly compelling protagonist, nor does he undergo any significant arc throughout the film. Because of how half-heartedly his character is composed, it’s difficult to understand some of the choices he makes. You’d think his near-constant narration would attempt to justify the big stuff!
As Mr. Harrigan’s Phone wraps up, it becomes clear that the film attempts to devise a moral on the dangers of technology. But these aren’t lessons we haven’t heard a thousand times before: phones are dangerously addictive, aid in spreading fake news, and disconnect us from those around us. In the context of the hollow film, these lessons come across as heavy-handed and condescending. Perhaps if the film had had more to say as a whole, we’d be more inclined to pick up when it rang.