Synopsis: When Mr. Harrigan sadly passes away, Craig discovers that not everything is dead and gone and strangely finds himself able to communicate with his friend from the grave.
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Jaeden Martell, Joe Tippett, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Cyrus Arnold, Colin O’Brien, Thomas Francis Murphy, Peggy J. Scott
Director: John Lee Hancock
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Enough Stephen King has been discussed on this site over the years that readers should be aware of how much I admire the author and save much of my guilty pleasure watches for his lesser-liked films. (I’m looking at you, The Lawnmower Man and Graveyard Shift…) I’ll always go to bat for King being one of the best storytellers out there, but with such a focus on getting inside the inner workings of his characters, I can see how his novels might not easily make the transition to the big (or small) screens. It takes a particular hand to adapt the work, and, as we’ve seen from the flops, it helps to have King’s support as you do it.
When you hear the name Stephen King alongside Blumhouse Productions and Ryan Murphy, a particular kind of “Stephen King movie” starts to develop in your mind. I can’t say that I blame Netflix for leaning into that in their marketing of Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, writer/director John Lee Hancock’s film based on the novella from the 2020 short story collection ‘If It Bleeds’. The poster and the preview give more than a slight hint the film packs in the thrills and has the kind of shivers expected of an October release. While admittedly, the movie does have its moments, it emerges as something far more elegant than just your average horror movie about a boy’s supernatural connection to his elderly dead friend.
Losing his mother at an early age, Craig (Jaeden Martell, Knives Out) has grown up with his single dad (Joe Tippett), doing his best to handle the duties of both parents. From an early age, he even reads aloud from the pulpit in church, Craig catches the eye of Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland, Backdraft), who requests his services three times a week, where he’ll pay him $5 to read to him from various works of classic literature. This arrangement continues for years, with Craig showing up dutifully. Over time, he gets life advice and becomes friendly with the man that prefers to stay isolated in his vast mansion and tend to his greenhouse flowers.
Craig begins high school in 2003, and that’s when problems start. A bully (Cyrus Arnold, 8-Bit Christmas, who by now has built a cottage industry playing them) targets him and creates trouble wherever Craig goes. A kind teacher (Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Silent Night) notices the conflict, but Craig is too worried about repercussions to make an official report. All the cool kids, including a girl Craig is interested in, have the hot new tech at the time (the iPhone), and once Craig gets his, he’s in the sacred circle.
It doesn’t protect him from his bully, though, or the onslaught of time. Shortly after giving Mr. Harrigan an iPhone of his own, Craig’s reading companion dies suddenly, and in a symbolic gesture, Craig makes sure he is buried with it. Not wanting to vent to his dad about the continuing school problems in case he pressures him to speak with school officials, Craig instead uses Mr. Harrigan’s still available voicemail to tell him about his problems. Then he receives a response back…
Without opening the gate on spoilers, it’s best to let you discover what happens next because a surprising amount of time is left in Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. And it’s not all that you might think. Leaning more toward the Dolores Claiborne end of the King canon for thrills and less of the Carrie vibe, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone affords the viewer enough time to get to know the characters and see them as real people. It helps us then understand their motivations when facing decisions and pivot points later on. Hancock (The Little Things) directs with a gentle hand, stepping back so a veteran actor like Sutherland can share scenes with the sensitive actor Martell demonstrably is and make something out of it.
Viewers going in expecting an all-out horror film or one that builds to a shattering climax with chains rattling and windows clanging will be disappointed with Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. However, if you know you’re in for a well-told tale, you can overlook a few of the film’s plot holes (battery life, who is paying the phone bill?) and settle back for one of the best Stephen King adaptations I’ve seen in years.