Stephen King, Donald Sutherland—how can you lose?

2 horror films for the faint-hearted

Mr. Harrigan's Phone official poster from Netflix

Halloween is upon us, and it’s time to scare ourselves by watching a horror movie. New releases are being screened in the malls, but you can save on gas and stay home because the selections are wide and varied in your favorite streaming sites. The venerable classics are available, as are the more recent ones about creepy nuns and possessed dolls.

I’ve just seen two original horror films by Netflix. Both are of the slow-burn type, which means the jumpscares and gore are minimal. There’s also less reliance on visual effects and gimmickry. It’s less of a carnival ride, as opposed to slasher and monster movies. Slow-burn horror is about creating an atmosphere of dread and constructing a quiet but compelling buildup to a harrowing finale. The films of M. Night Shymalan come to mind, and classics like The Innocents and the original version of The Haunting. They adhere to the mantra, “What you don’t see is actually scarier.”

Credit: Netflix/YouTube

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock from the story by Stephen King
Cast: Donald Sutherland, Jaeden Martell, Colin O’Brian

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone was listed as one of the new and original Netflix movies being streamed this month. I went for the bait because it stars Donald Sutherland. He’s always been one of my favorite actors. He’s also one of the most underrated. I didn’t know what Mr. Harrigan’s Phone was about, I just dove in without googling it. The lack of any opening credits was no help.

The story is set in a small town in Maine in the 1990s. This itself was a hint of things to come; Maine is Stephen King territory. But the movie seemed inspirational and hardly dark. Main protagonist is eight-year-old Craig (Colin O’Brian). Every Sunday, he’s tasked to read passages from the Bible during church service. Among those attending is Mr. Harrigan (Sutherland), an eccentric billionaire who lives in a huge mansion in the town’s outskirts.

Harrigan is impressed with the way Craig reads. He hires the boy to read books to him in his mansion, for five dollars an hour. His eyesight isn’t as good as it used to be, he explains. He and Craig thus form their own two-member book club. The titles they tackle are diverse, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Crime and Punishment.

Harrigan’s phone is a cell phone, a gift from the teenaged Craig (now played by Jaeden Martell). The story jumps to 2003, when so many cell phones begin owning people. At first, the old man is reluctant to own such a gadget, but he’s won over when Craig introduces the wondrous world of apps to him. With one app, he points out, one can read the results of the stock market just minutes after trading closes. This beats having to wait for tomorrow’s newspaper. Harrigan consequently gets addicted to his phone . Books and newspapers are now less interesting. (This hits too close to home for us who worked in the print industry.)

The movie takes a major detour when a dead man starts texting from his grave

The first half of the movie centers on the unlikely friendship between young Craig and Old Harrigan. It plays like the movies that Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn starred in when they were in their 70s. The plot was usually about an old timer who shares her wisdom with a wayward kid, who in turn teaches the old lady how to adapt to the changing times.

But was I wrong. When Harrigan passes away, the movie takes a major detour. It goes supernatural on us. It so happens that the dead man can text young Craig from his grave. Suddenly, all the elements that make a Stephen King story come into place.  People start dying abruptly, violently. Craig starts mourning his late mother who died when he was a toddler. It’s a different movie at this point.

But as adapted and directed for the screen by John Lee Hancock, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is mild Stephen King. The violence is muted and is shown with a minimum of bloodshed. The plot may have gone darker, but it doesn’t go all out with the carnage.

Thankfully, the actors are splendid in their roles. Jaeden Martell carries the entire movie, and he acquits himself well. His scenes with Sutherland are beautifully written and acted. Sutherland can play this type of role blindfolded. The movie could have still worked had the story just focused on their friendship.

The funny thing is, the plot twist is actually more effective if you weren’t expecting to see horror. What you know can hurt you, especially if you’re a Stephen King fan. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone is eerie at most, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The Watcher official poster from Netflix

Credit: Netflix/YouTube

The Watcher

Written by Ryan Murphy and Ian
Directed by Ryan Murphy (certain episodes by Jennifer Lynch, Paris Barclay, and Max Winkler)
Cast: Naomi Watts, Bobby Cannavale, Mia Farrow, Jennifer Coolidge

The Watcher is yet another true-to-life miniseries by Ryan Murphy. He was the man who produced the riveting shows about Andrew Cunanan, O.J. Simpson, and Halston.  This new one tells the story of a family that moves to their dream house in the suburbs. The dream, however, turns into nightmare when they keep receiving creepy letters from an anonymous person. He calls himself/herself The Watcher.

A dream house turns into nightmare when a family keeps receiving creepy anonymous letters

Paranoia hits the head of the family (Bobby Cannavale) and the lady of the dream house (Naomi Watts). The police aren’t eager to help, so they hire a jazz crooner-turned-private detective (Noma Dumezweni). She’s not much help either since she keeps running into red herrings. The list of suspects consists of rude neighbors led by an obnoxious spinster (Mia Farrow), and the real estate agent (Jennifer Coolidge) who sold them the house.

I did some research on the actual family that received the strange letters, which started arriving even before they moved in. The terrified family decided not to live in the house.  They’re still trying to unload the property, which is located in an upscale neighborhood in Westfield, New Jersey.

So there really isn’t much drama in the actual story. It was up to Murphy to embellish the miniseries with subplots to drum up viewer interest. The result is a lengthy seven-episode miniseries that comes with a basic story that could have been told in three episodes. Despite the length, however, viewers are still left hanging in the end.

Murphy wasn’t allowed to reveal much about the actual family. He had to invent a background story. He did the same with neighbors who behave like they reside in a trailer park, not a pricey neighborhood.

Westfield is supposed to be populated by people of the upper crust. Thus we’re shown sumptuously scenes of Jennifer Coolidge and Naomi Watts playing the ladies who lunch in a posh country club. Yet the conversations are riddled with expletives. Coolidge is supposed to be funny, but she just comes out as crass. She showed more style and sophistication as Stifler’s mom in American Pie.

Likewise, the supposed dream house in this miniseries isn’t to die for. Murphy should have asked director Boong Joon-ho (Parasite) for house hunting advice. It’s a shame, because The Watcher could have played like an opulent film version of an Architectural Digest article (gracious living gone insane!). Instead, it plays like a poor imitation of Desperate Housewives.  

About author


He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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