Mr Harrigan’s Phone (2022)
Director: John Lee Hancock
Screenwriters: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Jaeden Martell, Donald Sutherland, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Joe Tippett, Cyrus Arnold, Colin O’Brien
Stephen King is well known for horror; that’s what has made him. He can do the spooks and the monsters as well as, if not better, than anyone else. Mr Harrigan’s Phone, despite being marketed as a horror film, coming from a horror writer, originating from a collection of horror stories in “If It Bleeds” from 2020, and starring an actor (Donald Sutherland) well known for horror, is not a horror story. It is what King does better than anyone: a coming-of-age tale for the suburban American kid, which happens to have a ghost or two in the background. Thankfully for us all, not only is Mr Harrigan’s Phone (2022) a faithful retelling of the original short story, but it’s a damn good one.
Jaeden Martell (It) is Craig, a kid with a good reading voice who lost his mother some years before. His services are acquired by wealthy, aging business mogul John Harrigan, played by Donald Sutherland, to read to him several times per week. The bond they grow through this eventually leads to Harrigan, a man both scared of the future and his past, acquiring a fancy new gadget through which the pair can communicate: an original iPhone. When Harrigan passes, Craig receives messages from beyond the grave; messages that can only come from Harrigan’s phone six feet underground.
Stephen King adaptations are as notoriously hit-or-miss as his endings. Sometimes they’re astonishing, and elsewise they’re cheap and nasty affairs that are affronts to cinema (see this year’s re-adaptation/remake of Firestarter for more details on that). John Lee Hancock, however, has thankfully managed to battle through the attempts from both Netflix and Blumhouse to throw jump scares galore into anything they can get their grubby paws on, Mr Harrigan’s Phone being a simple, graceful, solemn affair which dispenses with almost all horror tropes. The only marginal jump scare section of Hancock’s film is handled in such a fashion that the jumps are not intended to scare, but to confirm what we already know, and encourages our narrative comprehension and predictions of upcoming events to manage the tension for us. Yes, there are a moments of over-editing that aren’t needed, and some conversations in which there are too many cuts for no reason at all, but for the most part the direction is understated, unnoticed, and has managed to escape the editing suite unscathed.
Combined with two wonderful performances from Donald Sutherland and Jaeden Martell, Mr Harrigan’s Phone becomes something different to a horror film, it becomes a coming-of-age story. It is about a young man facing the horrors of the world and learning, sometimes to his detriment, how he wishes to deal with them. It’s about making bad choices, understanding consequences and, more importantly, of living with oneself in the face of the world. Martell’s performance may be the best of his young career so far.
Mr Harrigan’s Phone is stately, understanding, empathetic, and much more mature than other King adaptations, and indeed many genre pictures of our current times. It doesn’t try to be something it isn’t. It has moments of joy and moments of despair. It has times to teach and times to sit back and watch. It is quiet but wise, never stepping forward too far to lecture or demean. Its detractors will moan and complain that it isn’t scary enough, or wow enough, or that it’s too slow, and yet all of these things are what make it good. Thankfully, Mr Harrigan’s Phone simply is what it is.