Add “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” to the relatively short list of really good Stephen King adaptations, garnishing a coming-of-age story with understated hints of the supernatural and thoughtful rumination about cellphones that finds true horror in their ubiquity. Amid a month of Halloween-tinged offerings, it might be one of the few to share with the kids – at least, before the next time you punish them by taking their phone away.
Featuring the co-star of another recent King adaptation (“It” star Jaeden Martell) as the teenage protagonist, Craig, the movie benefits enormously from 87-year-old Donald Sutherland’s work in the title role, playing a reclusive billionaire who pays the lad to come read to him a few times a week in his sprawling estate.
Set about 15 years in the past, when Craig finally convinces his widowed dad (Joe Tippett) to break down and get him an early iPhone as he starts high school – hoping to fit in with the cool kids – Craig decides to use some Lotto-won cash to also buy one for Mr. Harrigan.
The old man pooh-poohs the device at first, before becoming enamored with it, recognizing not only its myriad uses but also its corrosive possibilities. In one highly amusing ramble, Mr. Harrigan rattles off every terrible thing that the cellphone might unleash, calling it “a gateway drug” for all manner of societal ills, including the dissemination of bogus news.
“All of us need to be very frightened by this gizmo,” he says.
Although there is, inevitably, a macabre element to come – when Mr. Harrigan dies, and Craig’s phone somehow still seems to be communicating with his – the heart of the movie resides in those exchanges, and the bond that forms between the two. Faced with a bully (Cyrus Arnold), Craig sheepishly asks how Mr. Harrigan dealt with them back in the day, to which he icily responds, “Harshly.”
Written and directed by John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side”), “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” exhibits a level of restraint not regularly associated with the movie’s two high-profile producers, Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”) and the prolific horror maven Jason Blum. That’s the advantage in approaching the material as a drama, where the horror serves the story without overwhelming it.
Those who remember will see parallels with a particular “The Twilight Zone” episode, where a young boy spoke with his grandmother from the beyond, but the underlying warning about iPhones breathes fresh air into the concept. (Whether the movie promotes Apple’s flagship product while decrying its effects will likely be, to reference another “Twilight Zone,” in the eye of the beholder.)
The success of “It” helped spur the surge in cinematic hunger, both in movies and television, for all things King, but like “The Dead Zone,” it’s often the author’s less flamboyant works that make for the best adaptations. While it could easily get lost in the Halloween noise, this smart “Phone” deserves an enthusiastic reception, with a message that comes through loud and clear.
“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” premieres October 5 on Netflix.