"It was a confrontation between good and evil, and evil chose Connecticut as his place," says someone in Chris Holt's The Devil on Trial, a documentary about a man who, after committing a murder, claimed to be possessed by a demonic spirit. Was he telling the truth? Was he lying? Why does it remind you of The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It? The last question is easy to answer because The Devil on Trial is the documentary version of The Conjuring 3. Surprisingly, I found Michael Chaves' movie better than the previous James Wan-directed installments, and it's undoubtedly superior to Holt's film. The Devil on Trial becomes admirable when it casts a doubtful lens on the possession as well as the Warrens (Ed and Lorraine) through Carl, a member of the Glatzel family. Carl is the elder brother of David, who was apparently possessed by a demon when he was 11 years old, and he mentions that the "devil" calmed down when their father slapped David. He accuses the Warrens of mishandling the situation (they were more into recording the events than helping the family) and believes all the ghost stuff was fabricated and carefully planned by his family.
I was not expecting any attack on the Warrens in this documentary, given that it initially showers lots of praise on the famous paranormal investigators. People remark how kind and talented the Warrens were and how they helped the families escape supernatural complications. In fact, I thought The Devil on Trial would turn out to be yet another PR machine for the Warrens, like last year's unintentionally funny reality series 28 Days Haunting. However, Holt is more interested in presenting various narratives. You hear from people who actually believe that a young David was possessed by a spirit, and so was Arne when he committed the crime (he killed Alan Bono). On the other hand, we listen to non-believers like Carl, who dismiss everything as a cock-and-bull story.
However, what eventually becomes common between Carl and other members of his family is that they all accuse the Warrens of cheating. They seemingly promised David and his mother that they would become rich, but only Ed and Lorraine received fame and maximum profit. The Conjuring movies still benefit the Warrens financially, while the Glatzel family feels they were exploited. Is this documentary the family's way of telling the truth or taking revenge? Do you care? I know Netflix doesn't. The streaming service has this wild fascination with taking real-life crimes and making juicy documentaries for profit. Most of these shows and films are forgettable and look cheap. But let's get down to the level of this new Chris Holt film before asking ourselves, "Is this documentary...entertaining?" Because we don't really know if what we are told is an honest confession or a fabricated lie. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of The Amityville Horror, "But the question isn't so much whether those terrible things really happened as whether (please forgive me for my lack of reverence) they've been made into an entertaining movie."
Well, The Devil on Trial, like The Amityville Horror, is unexciting. The reenactments are sorely bland, and the home videos and tape recordings lose their creepy powers through repetition. After a while, you simply end up smiling at them. The whole filmmaking style is terrible and does nothing to offer the pleasures of horror. During one scene, we see a house shaking vigorously and keep cutting to the talking heads who describe the ongoing incident. How can such an approach create a tense atmosphere when a scene like this is not given the chance to unfold without (annoying) interruptions? There are moments when we hear the recordings and see the silent faces of the interviewees. This might be the documentary's way of saying, "Let these disturbing words sink in," but these contemplative faces look silly. Ultimately, what you take away from The Devil on Trial is that there is a lot of paperwork involved in exorcism. The church does not hand out exorcists like candy. They need proof to verify whether your claims are valid. Imagine handling a possessed child at home and sweating over paperwork for a priest. That, indeed, is the stuff of nightmares.
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