“I think our phones are how we are wedded to the world. If so, it’s probably a bad marriage.” Despite the punchy, crowd-pleasingly sinister trailer, Mr Harrigan’s Phone is a Stephen King adaptation that tends more towards the life-lessons of Stand by Me than the grandstanding ghost-train ride of IT; it’s a more gentle proposition than the hard-edged horror you might expect. That’s no bad thing; although we tend to characterise King as a master of the macabre, not all of his writings are intended to be potential blockbusters, and John Lee Hancock’s film from streaming giant Netflix recalls the unadorned pleasures of King’s short stories.
The source is a novella from the If It Bleeds collection, four previously unseen stories published in 2020. The Mr Harrigan of the title is an elderly man, played with great presence by Donald Sutherland. Harrigan is a rich man, a lonely billionaire, but his eyes are failing and he arranges for regular reading sessions with a local boy Craig (Jaeden Martell) who has just lost his mother. The two strike up an unlikely bond over new technology but when Mr Harrigan dies, Craig slips an iPhone into the old man’s casket, and not long after, his phone starts receiving messages that might just be from Mr Harrigan….
With Ryan Murphy and Jason Blum amongst the producers, you might expect Mr Harrigan’s Phone to use King’s story as a jumping–off point to fashion a more elaborate narrative; despite what the trailer promises, and strong supernatural themes, there’s actually very little in Craig’s story that couldn’t be rationally explained away through coincidence and bad luck. Interesting ideas, like the Devilish lotto cards that Craig plays, are introduced but not developed. But the author’s message is clear when it comes to technology and phones in particular; they’re a Pandora’s box that we open at our peril. One of the film’s best moments comes as Craig completes his reading Crime and Punishment to his literature-loving benefactor, and looks up only to discover that Mr Harrigan is too busy playing with his new phone to listen; that’s horror of a more philosophical kind.
Martell was one of the strikingly effective cast of IT, Sutherland’s genre credentials go back even further than Kings’, and Hancock’s film works best when the two of them are working together on the familiar, Dickensian mentor relationship seen in the rather more radical Apt Pupil. But despite the usual school bullies being lightly sketched in, and a weak ending that delivers a civics lecture rather than a drama, Mr Harrigan’s Phone plays out a timely and mature rumination of how technology, and the internet in particular, has played a major role in turning us against each other, and it makes a point that should resonate with budding Luddities everywhere.