The latest Stephen King adaptation, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, has just jumped into the entertainment stream on Netflix. There are a few things I really liked about the movie. Lead actor (and King-film veteran) Jaeden Martell shines as the young, lonely, and morally-conflicted protagonist Craig. Mr. Harrigan’s mansion is stunningly realized (much more effectively than in King’s novella), but the same cannot be said for the character himself. Donald Sutherland gives a torpid and uncommanding performance as the titular wealthy retiree, and the sometimes-menacing aspect Mr. Harrigan’s personality is never adequately conveyed. Sluggishly paced, the film also evinces plenty of plot issues.
A certain clunkiness marks the proceedings. In the early scenes showing Craig performing his hired role as afternoon book-reader to Mr. Harrigan, subtitles identifying the various texts being read are flashed onscreen. Besides creating a distraction, the subtitles insult audience intelligence (the filmmakers seem to believe that viewers would never be able to recognize the chosen texts otherwise–even though the two main characters delve into discussion of them afterwards). Writer/director John Lee Hancock’s script also proves a little too on-the-nose in its thematics, such as in the scene when Sutherland’s character conspicuously speechifies that he always feels compelled to answer the call of a friend in need.
The magic of King’s source text resides in the author’s supreme storytelling, his ability to meld the narrative’s disparate elements. King effortlessly grafts a pulp horror motif (revenant vengeance, summoned by postmortem cell phone connection) onto a more literary, coming-of-age tale. The film, unfortunately, forms a much more uneven mix, and seems unsure of what is wants to be–a character study, or a supernatural thriller. Case in point: the handling of the death of Craig’s high school bully, Kenny (a miscast Cyrus Arnold: he’s a hulking galoot, for sure, but too goofy in his bearing to be truly intimidating). In the novella, Kenny’s death is listed as an accidental hanging during a bout of autoerotic asphyxiation, but hints at a more sinister cause (as Kenny’s hair is said to have turned white). Craig wonders if Mr. Harrigan’s ghoulish, beyond-the-grave figure appeared in Kenny’s dark closet and actually frightened the masturbator to death. None of this makes its way into the movie, making the foul Kenny’s death fairly uninteresting. Fans expecting typical King scares are apt to be disappointed (the film doesn’t aid its own cause, either, with a mid-Halloween-season release).
King’s novellas (versus his doorstopper novels) tend to make for the best film adaptations of his work. This one, though, will never enjoy a grouping with Stand By Me, The Shawshank Redemption, or Secret Window. I have to call it like I see it: Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is watchable, but eminently unmemorable.