The horrors of cell phones aren’t anything new in a Stephen King story. Most notably, King’s novel “Cell,” where a signal sent out over a major cell phone network transforms every cell phone user into mindless rapid zombies. On a lesser scale, King explores this ambivalence in his novella, “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.” The coming-of-age tale is a gentle stepping stone into King’s mind and works well as an introduction to his work.
Now adapted into a feature, you miss the magic of the novella. The film fails to maintain a connection due to its slow pacing. This seems caused by having to stretch out the novella to fit its lengthier runtime. Its more overt horror elements get muddied as the film seems to lean more into ambiguity than not. By the end of MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE, because of how the story is structured, it feels like the story is just about to begin rather than wrap. Kids may be interested in sticking around, but adult viewers are likely to seek out something more titillating.
MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE follows Craig (Jaeden Martell) from childhood into teenage adolescence. Craig befriends Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), an older, reclusive billionaire with secrets. Over the years, they bond over their love of reading and books, and Craig learns more about the eccentric Mr. Harrigan in the process. One day, Craig discovers Mr. Harrigan’s dead. Through Mr. Harrigan’s phone, Craig learns that nothing ever stays dead, and Harrigan is still trying to communicate.
For a character-driven story like this, the main draw of MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE is the onscreen performance between Jaeden Martell’s Craig and Donald Sutherland’s Mr. Harrigan. So much time is rightfully spent building up the dynamic between the two. Martell has the more difficult role as he alternates between voiceover narration and general scene work. He does well while Mr. Harrigan is still alive, with Sutherland maintaining that sense of underlying menace in his own performance. Unfortunately, after Harrigan’s death in the story, things start to fall apart as the story shifts tones.
Another area that excels is in the build-up of the setting and the various side characters around Craig. King has always been able to describe settings vividly so that, if you’ve never even ventured to Maine, you can easily envision every nook and cranny of whatever small town he’s transferred you to. Writer/director John Lee Hancock does well here in carrying over these details, and Craig’s narration in describing these details so that we’re able to settle down for the ride. The locations, set design, and production design also come together to support the visuals needed to bring the setting to life.
Struggles to expand in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone
In the novella, Harrigan’s reach from beyond reads as more apparent. In the film, after his death, while strange things happen and the audience can make the conclusion something is going on, it reads more ambivalent. Whether it’s the structure of the scenes, the dialogue, or Martell’s acting in these more supernatural happenings, these moments don’t register. Alternating between the mystery of Mr. Harrigan back to the sus messaging from the phone, the tense pacing is not there. Not like they do in the more tension-ridden trailer. By the time you reach the payoff at the end of MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE, the resolution rings hollow.
MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE is a slow burn much to its detriment. The character development and relationship between Craig and Mr. Harrigan are the stronger points of the film. These elements worked the best in the original novella as well. As time passes, you can feel the struggle to expand this short novella into a feature, and the struggle with its tonal shift from character drama to a gentle haunting. While this Stephen King tale is a safe stepping stone for youngins, adults are likely to try to find one of King’s darker works to pop on instead.
MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE releases on Netflix on October 5, 2022.
All images courtesy Nicole Rivelli/Netflix © 2022
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