2023, Movies

The Devil on Trial (2023, Chris Holt)

This is an entirely too credulous documentary about a 1981 murder where the perpetrator claimed to be possessed. The story is the basis for one of the Conjuring films (among others), films I have yet to see.


There are two major problems with the way this film is told. The first problem is an issue I have with the way this story is told. The second issue is that I think there’s a better, more compelling story than some dude and his girlfriend and her family claiming “The Devil made me (him) do it.”

This film gives entirely too much oxygen to the people who truly believe Johnson was possessed. I think I understand why the filmmakers did this but I think it’s a big mistake given how credulous everybody is. (There are people who watch all those ghost hunter shows on TV and think they’re real. There are lots of these people.) The film spends too much time on the believers because they want to pull the rug out from under the audience, twice. They want to do that because they’ve seen numerous fictional films, and the odd documentary, that does this well. So they introduce the skeptical brother later in the film so that their audience thinks it’s a twist. And then they wait until the very, very end of the movie to reveal what the skeptical brother think’s the cause of the whole thing was so, again, we’ll think “Twist!”

But so much more oxygen for the believers – and the murderer himself – makes their case stronger in the eyes of many. There are people who tend to believe something if more people say it. I worry those people will watch this and come away thinking the reason the film is the way it is because the filmmakers really do think there’s something here. (Also, this man committed murder and the filmmakers just let him tell his story as if possession is a thing that happens to people. There is only the tiniest hint at an explanation as to what really happened.)

But to me, perhaps the bigger issue is that the interesting story here isn’t Johnson stabbing someone and pretending he was possessed by The Devil. The interesting story is this couple who were making money off people like this, the Warrens. These people got rich off of this stuff and their estates are still getting rich as numerous films, including the Amityville and Conjuring film series, and others. Steve Novella met them and thought they were nice and sincere people but that’s one reason to know more about them. Were they sincere, deluded people who thought they were doing the (literal) lord’s work? Or were they con artists whose demeanor softened skeptics and convinced confused, troubled people? That’s the story I want, not some story about a teenager who was present for an exorcism and used it as an excuse to kill his girlfriend’s ex boyfriend.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.