Mr. Harrigan's Phone Review: This Stephen King Adaptation Is An Old School Ghost Story With A Modern Twist

A good old-fashioned ghost story, "Mr. Harrigan's Phone" is bound to surprise folks looking for a more traditional modern horror pic. There are no jump scares; no CGI ghouls; no lengthy chase sequences that turn out to be dumb-ass dreams. No, the horror in "Mr. Harrigan's Phone," adapted from the short story by an up-and-coming writer named Stephen King (you've probably never heard of him) comes from the situations the characters find themselves in. It's a type of slow-burn, psychological horror. The type of thrills and chills that don't register at first, but come creeping back when you're in bed, awake at night, unable to sleep, and the darkness starts to creep in.

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock — not exactly the first name you think of when it comes to horror movies, unless you're terrified of Michael Keaton's accent in "The Founder" — "Mr. Harrigan's Phone" is one of the most-faithful King adaptations in recent memory. It sticks almost religiously to King's text, making only a few minor alterations here and there. As a fan of the story, I was delighted about this — but I also recognize it's not going to work for everyone. As Halloween season approaches, viewers will probably press play on this on Netflix expecting more traditional ghosts and ghouls. Instead, they're going to get a movie that requires them to ruminate.

None of this is to say Hancock's film is a home run. While I have never outright hated Hancock's work (I actually even like his box office flop "The Alamo"), he's not exactly skilled at creating fear and tension. He's a workman filmmaker; someone who knows where the point the camera, and why, without putting much more thought into it. The end result is a sturdy-enough chiller that could've been even better.

It's for you

In the small town of Gates Falls (which, this being a King story, is naturally in New England), Craig (Jaeden Martell), a kid from a working-class family, is hired by a mysterious, reclusive billionaire named John Harrigan (Donald Sutherland). Harrigan lives alone (save for a housekeeper and a gardener) in his giant mansion, and as his eyes fail him in his old age, he needs someone to read to him. Craig takes the gig, and while Harrigan remains imposing, the two develop an unlikely friendship.

And then, the iPhone arrives. Yes, the story is set slightly in the past, at the dawn of the iPhone age, and when Craig gets one of the smartphones for Christmas, he's eager to show it off to Mr. Harrigan. Harrigan has no use for such contraptions, damn it! He's old! But of course, all he needs is a few scrolls through the iPhone's stock market app to change his mind. And he even gets an iPhone of his own.

This is going to sound like a spoiler, but it's not, since the entire movie hinges on this premise: eventually, Mr. Harrigan dies. Heartbroken, Craig slips the dead old man's phone into the pocket of his jacket right before his coffin lid is closed. Later, feeling lonely, he decides to send Mr. Harrigan a text.

And Mr. Harrigan texts back.

Answer the call

Or does he? 

This is a great old-school horror story premise; in fact, King is cribbing from a classic "Twilight Zone" episode, "Night Call," in which a downed phone line falls onto a grave, enabling the inhabitant buried six feet under to reach out and touch someone. Craig is understandably creeped out but tries to shrug the whole thing off as some weird coincidence. But that gets harder to do when certain people who have drawn Craig's ire start turning up dead.

It's a spooky idea, although Craig is too much of a passive character for it to really land. It would've been scarier if Craig was a bit more morally gray, and felt a little more conflicted about the mysterious deaths. Instead, he almost immediately denounces them as soon as they happen.

All of this unfolds with an easy, breezy charm that's a touch too light for this subject matter. But while Craig as a character is too weakly drawn, Martel does a fine job playing up the character's increasing fear. The real highlight, though, is Sutherland. While his part is small, the actor, now in his Lion in Winter phase, shows up to remind us he's still got it. With just a slight smile and a twinkle in his eye, Sutherland is able to make Mr. Harrigan seem mischievous, warm, and dangerous all at once. It's a stellar little performance, and I wanted more of it. Let's hope he keeps acting for as long as possible because this performance just reminded me how much I missed seeing him in movies. 

Sutherland wasn't the only thing I wanted more of. I wanted just a little bit more horror — I'm not talking jump-scares, I just mean a greater sense of dread. But if you answer the call of "Mr. Harrigan's Phone," you might find yourself more creeped out than you might expect. Especially when night rolls around, and the wind picks up and rattles your house. And the screen of your phone suddenly lights up.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10

"Mr. Harrigan's Phone" premieres Wednesday, October 5, 2022, on Netflix.