[Documentary Review] THE DEVIL ON TRIAL

The trial of Arne Johnson has been one that has continuously been explored in media since it happened. Picked up in a sensationalist haze, prompted by the involvement of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the controversial case took America by storm. Known as “The Devil Made Me Do It” case, it was the first time a defensive team used the excuse of demonic possession to protest Johnson’s innocence. Lost in the conversation over the years? The Glatzel family. And Netflix’s latest documentary, THE DEVIL ON TRIAL, aims to highlight what happened to the Glatzels and help them take back ownership of the narrative.

Written and directed by Christopher Holt, THE DEVIL ON TRIAL takes its time introducing us to the remaining Glatzel family members. The youngest, David Glatzel, was where things began. Presumed possessed at the age of 11, his behavior and the family’s escalating fears and frustrations led to the involvement of the Warrens. Caught in the middle were his brothers, middle child Alan Glatzel and the eldest Carl Glatzel. From their introduction, you get the sense that the relationship between the brothers decades later is estranged and uncomfortable.

Warrens Revisited

(L to R) Ed Warren, David Glatzel, and Lorraine Warren

The variety of different perspectives and opinions on the events that took place from beginning to end provides enough for the audience to work with to make up their own opinion on the case. Holt’s decision to lay out everyone’s perspectives, from lawyers to detectives to the Glatzels, everyone is heard and given a chance to say their piece. Of the brothers, the divide feels further heightened, as both David and Alan believe David was truly possessed, while Carl believes it was a hoax perpetuated by the Warrens.

Ed and Lorraine Warren have undergone a more positive reception to their exploits thanks in part to The Conjuring franchise. However, in THE DEVIL ON TRIAL, the messaging directed towards the Warrens (who were controversial then and still are to this day) is rightfully critical. Dissecting their involvement in David’s possession and subsequently Arne’s own possession, how they were able to capitalize off of the Glatzels family’s suffering is highlighted. This criticism of the Warrens in the documentary may surprise, but for those of us who have followed their cases, it feels welcomed and necessary.

Utilizing audio recordings, news clips, and re-enactments of certain scenes, the viewer is easily immersed back into the 80s when the case occurred. The editing plays a strong part. The tone itself isn’t overly dramatic. At times, it reads a little low energy. But editing helps in creating memorable audio and visual moments to keep some energy in the documentary going.

THE DEVIL ON TRIAL – Who to believe?

Carl Glatzel

Whether or not a case is laid out supporting possession or not is up in the air. What does feel like a wasted opportunity for dissection is the bomb that is dropped by Carl within THE DEVIL ON TRIAL‘s final minutes. Not only does this create an entirely different feel in tone after the rather steady mostly one-not level of the documentary, but it is left there to hang rather than be explored further. It is here that there is the most fault as we are left to linger on the what-ifs.

For horror fans and fans of the supernatural, the information relayed to us in THE DEVIL ON TRIAL is nothing new. How it is laid out should be commended, disregarding the ending. From beginning to end, viewers get a chance to hear from everyone as the brothers recount the story chronically, and all perspectives are presented. What spike in levels we get is delivered through audio, news clips, and re-enactments.

For a family that has long been excluded from the overall discussion and whose adolescent years continue to be capitalized on by others, THE DEVIL ON TRIAL rights a wrong by allowing them to reclaim their narrative. Even if their narratives differ, their voices can’t be ignored. While the documentary’s levels might make this a middling affair, if we judge it from the viewpoint of reclamation, the documentary is a success.

THE DEVIL ON TRIALĀ is now now Netflix.

Sarah Musnicky
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