Stephen King’s works are full of all kinds of memorable monsters and villains. The likes of the man in black, Pennywise the clown, and Jack Torrance are ingrained in pop culture. In the latest cinematic adaptation, though, the bad guy isn’t a guy at all: it’s an object. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is a horror story all about being addicted to your smartphone.
This review contains spoilers for Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (the book and the movie).
Based on the short story of the same name from King’s 2020 collection If It Bleeds, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (written and directed by John Lee Hancock) follows the story of a young boy named Craig (Jaeden Martell, probably best-known for another King adaptation, with the modern It movies) who lives with a single dad (Joe Tippett). Following the death of his mother, Craig takes on a job reading books out loud a few days a week for an aging billionaire (Donald Sutherland), who for some reason lives in a small New England town where he has no familial or business connections.
The movie starts out in 2003 and then skips forward four years to a time when Craig becomes extremely focused on a particular object of desire: the brand-new just-launched iPhone. His high school is in full smartphone fever, to the point that the cafeteria tables are divided by brand; one table for the Razr fans and another for the Apple crew.
(King fans who are currently reading his latest novel, Fairy Tale, will probably get a feeling of déjà vu, as that book is also about a young boy who loses his mother and goes on to work for a strange old man. Thankfully the stories diverge from there.)
During that time, Craig and Mr. Harrigan form a quiet kind of friendship. They meet several times a week, talk about books and life, and Mr. Harrigan sends him a card with a scratch ticket inside four times a year. For Christmas 2007, Craig gets a pretty good haul: not only does his dad get him that iPhone so he can sit at the cool table but also, after years of duds, his scratch card from Mr. Harrigan wins a cool $3,000. As a sign of his appreciation, Craig spends some of his windfall on an iPhone for his boss.
The thing about Mr. Harrigan is that he’s a technophobe of sorts. He doesn’t keep a TV or even a radio in the house because he knows that he’ll waste too much time with them. But he’s also a financial wizard (albeit a retired one) who stays occupied by trading stocks. So when his young employee shows him the iPhone’s stock app, with its numbers moving in near real time, Mr. Harrigan becomes transfixed. And once he realizes he can get The Wall Street Journal articles the moment they’re published instead of waiting for the newspaper the next day, his fixation becomes something of an obsession. (He also predicts plenty of things that seem prescient now, like the rise of tracking software, conspiracy theories, and paywalls.)
About a third of the way through the movie — this is technically a spoiler, so be warned, but it’s very clearly choreographed from the start and also appears in the trailers — Mr. Harrigan dies. In a strange, spontaneous act, Craig slips his friend’s iPhone into the casket before he’s buried, ensuring his smartphone addiction will continue in the afterlife. And it’s here that Mr. Harrigan’s Phone shifts from a quiet, contemplative story about a friendship that crosses generations to a thriller with possible supernatural elements.
As Craig is grieving the death of his friend, he’s also being terrorized by an obsessive bully (Cyrus Arnold). To make things more frustrating, Mr. Harrigan was the kind of person Craig would come to for advice in just these kinds of situations; he was a good friend but also an absolutely ruthless businessman, the type who knew how to keep people from taking advantage of him. So even though it’s buried deep underground, Craig calls Mr. Harrigan’s phone to leave a message, and… weird things start to happen. He gets strange texts from Mr. Harrigan’s number and, eventually, it’s almost like the things he asks for from his dead friend start to come true. Brutal justice is doled out by a mysterious hand. This continues in more extreme ways as the story progresses.
Part of what makes Mr. Harrigan’s Phone work is how it slowly and steadily builds up its scares. It’s not a traditional kind of horror filled with lots of ghosts and monsters but instead takes something we all know far too well — the smartphone — and turns it into a potential object of terror. With each new ring, you worry about what will happen, and you never really know what’s coming next, which is what gives the movie its tension. It also doesn’t suffer from the bloat that’s typical of adaptations of King’s novels. It’s a short story that fits within the confines of the film’s 100-minute runtime nearly perfectly.
If there’s one area where the movie suffers — and, it should be noted, the same is true of the story it’s based on — it’s the ending. The story builds and builds before… just kind of fizzling out. In some ways, the conclusion is fitting, as it keeps the supernatural questions open to interpretation. But it also makes things feel a touch unfinished. An otherwise well-paced thriller ends on a flat note, steadfastly refusing to give away its biggest secrets.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone might not be quite as memorable as some of King’s more iconic stories. It’s hard to imagine it penetrating the public consciousness like Carrie or It. But it’s also a great showcase for some of the writer’s less-celebrated strengths: namely, building strong relationships between characters and imbuing everyday objects or moments with a newfound sense of dread. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone might not terrify you in the moment, but it made me jump the next time I heard my phone ring.
Mr. Harrigan’s Phone starts streaming on Netflix on October 5th.