Every time a Stephen King-inspired film releases, the gods hold their breath. The famed author is responsible for many of the best films in the history of the medium. Even if he has not always liked the ways they were adapted, they have inspired generations of storytellers and writers. At the same time, some of his stories have led to outright bad, even laughable movies. This week, Netflix releases Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, their latest adaptation based on his work. Unfortunately, the subdued film provides little in the way of scares or lessons. In fact, very little happens at all.
Drawing heavily from King’s traditional setups, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone follows teenager Craig (Jaeden Martell). Craig aspires to Hollywood stardom as a writer and, over the last decade, has worked as a reader for the hyper-rich Mr. Harrigan (Donald Sutherland). After scoring a winning scratch-off, Craig buys Mr. Harrigan a phone to increase their connection. However, after Harrigan passes away, his phone continues to send messages to Craig. Simultaneously, bad things begin happening to those who have hurt the teen.
The setup for the story could make for a creepy story, but director John Lee Hancock never cashes in on this aspect. Instead, he lets the story play out with deaths occurring offscreen, only flashing to the corpses of those who wrong Craig. It’s a rare break from Craig’s internal monologuing, which we hear throughout the film. However, only peeking our heads out during these sequences makes little sense as well, in part because it takes away any mystery from the narrative.
Based heavily on King’s novella of the same name, the screenplay for Mr. Harrigan’s Phone provides almost no insight into the world today. The story, published in 2020, rails against disinformation and the ills of technological reliance. This might feel important, but digging into this as an integral part of the narrative feels like saying the Earth is round. Even though Sutherland delivers the monologues about the ills that technology would bring to our society, we feel nothing. After all, this has been a widely discussed and talked about issue for at least a decade. Nothing in this conversation feels new.
In the traditional King style, much of the narrative focuses on the transition between adolescence and adulthood. Color me skeptical, but it the story rarely imparts wisdom on this front either. King’s other works have explored this subject so thoroughly. This ignores the far scarier works like Death Note (the anime) or even the traditional Yiddish Golem folktale. Despite find performances, Mr. Harrigan’s phone never feels especially urgent or necessary. For some, lessons on grief, loss, and a lack of control will be needed. Yet most of these issues are so cliche, that there’s little reason for the rest of us to care.