October 3, 2022

Soulless King Adaptation “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is Not a Call Worth Taking (Review)

There are things we learn to expect from certain genres of film. Science-fiction will put a futuristic twist on modern technology; fantasy will transport us to faraway worlds; and comedies will be funny (or at the very least, absurd). Not to mention that the one constant for horror movies is that they should be scary.

Image courtesy of Netflix

But what does being “scary” mean? Does it mean slow-paced scene after scene, featuring increasingly bizarre imagery and occurrences that are mean to jar and unsettle the audience, before being punctuated by a loud noise and the appearance of a brand-new factor that is supposed to scare the living daylights out of you?

No, wait, sorry, that’s the baseline for modern horror. Most modern horror, that is — we’ll make exceptions for the Get Outs and Midsommars of the bunch that endeavor to try new things — but there will always be the outliers that choose to stick to the status quo. And then, just slightly below that, are the films which take no risks whatsoever, to the extent that the “scare factor” has been all but eliminated.

That’s the thought I kept circling back to during Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, a new Netflix adaptation of a Stephen King story you’ve never heard of, previously-unseen and finally published in 2020. It’s clear that it was written (or at least conceived) ten years beforehand, when the cell phone craze swept the nation’s youth.

Taking place in Maine (of course), Mr. Harrigan’s Phone begins as young Craig (It and Knives Out’s Jaeden Martell) gets a job reading for hated billionaire Mr. Harrigan after the old man’s eyes begin to fail him. He’s played by Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H, The Hunger Games), who can make even the most lackluster dialogue sound intelligent and, dare I say, even regal. It helps that, despite the least amount of screen time, Mr. Harrigan is the most developed character of the small batch, and we get a sense of who he is and what he’s done from context clues alone.

Image courtesy of Netflix

The story really starts when Craig buys Mr. Harrigan an iPhone shortly before the old man passes away. Soon afterward, Craig begins to get text messages from Mr. Harrigan’s old number, and tries to connect the dots between a series of unusual deaths and his relationship with the deceased billionaire. Put simply, the crux of
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is Stephen King’s own opinions about cell phones and fake news, and how it’s affecting the current generation. Mr. Harrigan himself seems like a conductor for King’s thoughts, repeatedly calling phones a “gateway drug” and reflecting on the days of yore, where you read your news in a newspaper and had to work for your information. I have my own thoughts about cell phones and the use of screens, but it’s very clear where Mr. Harrigan’s Phone stands on the issue, for better or for worse.

The biggest problem here is that Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is an adaptation of a short story that is attempting to fill the runtime of a feature film. The ideas are solid, but you can tell the story works best in a short, contained form where those ideas can be succinctly summarized.

Where, you may ask, does the “horror” aspect come into play? That’s the movie’s biggest sin — it’s just not scary. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is largely devoid of any horror, even lacking the disquieting atmosphere that could be disturbing on its own. One could argue that there is plenty of real-life scariness in the dour pessimism about modern technology, but to agree with that would be ignoring the film
’s undeniable potential. I feel it would have been more engaging if it had embraced the true frightening nature of the situation, but it instead seems content to play it safe and watch events creep on at a snail’s pace from a comfortable distance.

Image courtesy of Netflix

It’s a shame to see Stephen King get the “Netflix original” treatment, but here we are. This would have worked great as a
Creepshow segment, but as a feature-length Death Note rip-off filled to the brim with shameless product placement and a desperately forced payoff? Unless you’re a Stephen King completionist, you’d do best to ghost Mr. Harrigan’s Phone while you have the chance.

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone premieres on Netflix this Wednesday, October 5.

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