A frightening tale of a real-world battle against the “devil”: “THE DEVIL ON TRIAL”

Last Updated: October 17, 2023By Tags: ,

The use of reenactments cheapens certain documentary films. These moments are sometimes shot haphazardly and cause even the best documentaries to lose their impact. Chris Holt does indeed pepper his new film, “The Devil on Trial”, with scripted re-enactments, but the director breaks the mold, using the operating mode sparingly.

Though successfully used (more than once) in England, there has been only one instance in the U.S. of demonic possession being used as a defense in a murder trial.

In Holt’s film, a murder trial led to this unprecedented legal defense, dubbed by news outlets as the “Devil Made Me Do It” case. The Connecticut trial of then nineteen-year-old Arne Cheyenne Johnson quickly became national news.

In 1981, the teen was arrested for the murder of his landlord, Alan Bono, having stabbed him multiple times. With no previous history of violence (or any issues with the law, for that matter), Johnson argued he didn’t remember it happening and was convinced he was possessed by a demon he had challenged some months before.

“The Devil on Trial” uses its interesting first half to introduce viewers to Johnson’s girlfriend Deborah’s eleven-year-old brother, David. With re-enactments (and some bone-chilling original audio recordings), the film tells of how David encountered an evil entity that began to haunt his waking moments, until finally taking him over with full-on demonic possession. After a failed attempt at an exorcism, the case caught the attention of Ed and Lorraine Warren, the famous couple who claimed to have battled ghosts and demons all over the world. As the couple takes on David’s case, it becomes their most challenging yet. It is when David’s family (with the help of Arne and Ed and Lorraine Warren) tries to convince the evil to leave young David where, in a moment of frustration, Arne claims to have ordered the demon to leave David and “take me on!” The Warrens told Johnson he made a big mistake. If horror lore has taught us anything, you don’t challenge a demon.

It is here where the film reveals some shocking revelations that will disturb those who accept demonic possession as a reality and anger non-believers. Holt uses firsthand accounts of the people closest to the events, including the now-adult Johnson and David. The two men (along with the detective who was involved with the case, David’s older brother Carl, and others) speak directly to the camera while often listening to the terrifying audio made during David’s supposed possession. David’s older brother Carl (much like the judge who sentenced Johnson to up to twenty years in prison) doesn’t buy any of it. He accuses the Warrens of being opportunists who manipulated his mother. In an eye-opening scene, Holt plays a recording of a phone conversation between David’s mother and Lorraine Warren that may give some validity to Carl’s claims. David and his brother would later sue the Warrens for libel and ‘intentional infliction of emotional distress’ over a book written about the incident.

There is also an accusation of the mother (now long deceased) putting sleep medication into the food of her family so she could master some kind of control. This revelation is thrown out by Carl but is never spoken of or examined again. Dramatically, it would have benefited the film to dig deeper into Carl’s view of his mother. Alas, the director doesn’t seem interested in investigating his claims.

For horror fans, the documentary will be a frightening tale of a “real world” battle against the Devil. Skeptics will experience an examination of a family torn apart. Either way one experiences the picture, this is a sad and tragic tale.

Holt doesn’t wallow in reenacting the horror, letting the actual audio do the work. Using photographs taken during young David’s episodes, the recordings blend with the imagery to make a horrifying combination. Many scenes should unnerve an open-minded audience.

The director finds a balance between the demonic horror and the actual tragedy that befell this family and those around them. The film doesn’t seem to take a side but finds focus in its sympathies for David, Arne, and their family. Whatever the truth may be, these souls are forever destroyed and Holt makes sure to recognize and address their pain.

“The Devil on Trial” doesn’t break any new ground but the story is very interesting, and although the film is a little exploitative it becomes clear that the filmmakers cared about their subjects. In doing so, Chris Holt has directed a sincere documentary; an eerie and moving record of a tragedy and its unique outcome that will forever be the true terror in one family’s tarnished legacy.

Still from “THE DEVIL ON TRIAL”

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