Reading the autumnal work of a decades-spanning master like Stephen King is enriched not only by the experience that comes with age, but by the shifting ages themselves. With King especially, as a writer who made injections of pop culture—listening to the Stones, drinking Coke, popping an Advil—one of his down-to-earth signatures, watching him acclimate to and integrate new technology into his stories is a rare perspective-shifting gift. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, his novella from the 2020 collection If It Bleeds, is an ode to the iPhone. More sweet than scary, more thoughtful than frightful, it takes us on a little trip to Steve Jobs’ Pet Sematary. King continues to enjoy his smartphone, if his Twitter presence is anything to go by, but he certainly won’t like Netflix’s dead-battery adaptation of his story.
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, a genre-agnostic filmmaker who helped get Sandra Bullock her embarrassing Oscar for The Blind Side before turning to other forgettable dramas, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone has several red flags on speed dial. There’s the near-constant voiceover, the first and perhaps most damning sign of a weak-willed adaptor. Craig (Jaeden Martell) just won’t shut up about his time reading novels to local billionaire Harrigan (Donald Sutherland), the deadly fallout that ensued and what that all meant to him, an impressionable youth with a new iPhone. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone doesn’t just dumb the story down and hold our hand, as nearly every movie made from a book does, but excises King’s talents like a new manager jealously firing the old guard. It might’ve taken a little imagination to make it so Mr. Harrigan’s Phone didn’t involve us listening to an audiobook of Stephen King CliffNotes, or us watching Craig painstakingly recite the novella to a grave, but Hancock demonstrates an impressive lack throughout. His movie is artless and inert—the cinematic equivalent of a bricked iPhone.
His film also demonstrates a misunderstanding of the story’s emotional core. Craig delivers a weepy speech, an opportunity to confess his affection for Harrigan in a way that King’s character never got. So when Harrigan eventually dies and King’s inevitably supernatural turn comes, there’s nothing left unsaid—the relatable sentiment inside an otherwise silly-sounding “texting with a ghost” premise—that would drive Craig to desire communication with the departed.
The departed also takes a drubbing: Sutherland, with proper gravity, adds as much nuance as he can to a character that, sadly and necessarily, only appears sporadically through 30 minutes of the movie. But his retired mogul is without detail, without personality. He mirrors the simple, primary colors with which the journeyman Hancock paints his scareless, cheap-looking world. It’s Hancock’s first horror-adjacent movie, and it exposes him as inept in the genre: Harrigan’s manor is caricatured into a style-sapped Hammer set, with leering groundskeepers, a haunting piano score, ominous clock chimes and fearful looks out frosted windows. In turn, Harrigan sits like a plastic Spirit Halloween skeleton—one whose backstory of financial dominance (he’s a billionaire, after all) is told to us through the kind of bold-text article-scrolling that Google has blighted movies with.
“EVERYTHING HARRIGAN TOUCHES DIES,” screams one particularly prescient on-the-nose headline. Harrigan’s a far crueler man in the film, a socialism-hating industrialist blamed for a thieving employee’s suicide. The ex-employee, fired by his “rich asshole” boss according to a local trailer park stereotype, painted “FU H” on his garage before driving in and breathing in the exhaust. “Nobody could figure what it meant,” the stereotype claims. Those unfortunate enough to populate Mr. Harrigan’s Phone must be as dumb as the movie thinks we are. This low opinion of its audience is apparent in every step of its narrative and in some of its stranger creative choices. The books Craig reads to Harrigan (Heart of Darkness, The Jungle, etc.) have their titles displayed on screen, not quite calling us illiterate, but certainly implying it.
Stretched to 106 teeth-pulling minutes, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone doth protest too much. With its montages taken from bad CW teen shows, its unintentionally hilarious added scenes (one Hancock Original sees Craig read A Tale of Two Cities to a corpse) and its complete lack of humanity, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone misses out on all of King’s warmth—which means it misses out on his chills too. You can’t believe in a story’s ghosts if you can’t believe those supposedly leaving them behind.
Sutherland’s an ironic bit of life amid a cast as wooden as a cheap grave marker. They’re as one-note as the adaptation, with Cyrus Arnold being the worst offender as a textbook bully and Martell being right behind as a kid with even less going on behind the eyes than his take on It’s Bill. You can’t believe that Craig and Harrigan bond over the exciting advances in tech because there’s no excitement, and nothing to bond together. You certainly don’t care that, after Harrigan dies, Craig gets a few weird and foreboding texts as he comes of age. It’s not just a matter of writing, but tone, structure and timing. Martell and Hancock can’t even make winning the lottery exciting, as a gift scratcher from Harrigan pulls in $3,000…off screen. Martell announces his prize like he matched up the numbers right before hearing that his dog got run over.
So, without style, nuance or its central narrative theme, what’s left of this novella? A shell, with a name stuck onto it—an “iPhone” bought from a street vendor, the metallic apple sticker slightly peeling at one edge. In King’s story, Craig laments that those at Harrigan’s funeral never knew his human side. His love of country music, his distaste for the blowhard Rush Limbaugh, his dedication to bowel-cleansing oatmeal cookies. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone sins in similar ways: It knows the surface of its source, but none of what matters.
Director: John Lee Hancock
Writer: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Donald Sutherland, Jaeden Martell, Joe Tippett, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cyrus Arnold, Colin O’Brien, Thomas Francis Murphy, Peggy J. Scott
Release Date: October 5, 2022 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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