In 1981, 19-year-old bright young boy Arne was prosecuted for murdering his landlord, Alan Bono. He was charged with committing murder in the first-degree, which, according to the law, translates into willfully killing someone with full intention. But Arne pleaded not guilty. And his defense was the first of its kind in the history of the United States—demonic possession. This is what the latest Netflix documentary, The Devil on Trial, is based upon. Sounds familiar, right? Yes, in case you are wondering, the popular film in the Conjuring franchise, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, was indeed based on the same story. This time around, we get to see the real people who went through it. The real Arne, who is the focal point of the documentary, his wife, Debbie Glatzel, and her brother David, who also got possessed. The other family members of the Glatzel family also appear as narrators. Ed and Lorraine Warren are also there, but they only appear through archival footage.
I always get excited whenever I have to write about a Netflix documentary. That’s only normal, given the platform’s track record in this particular genre of filmmaking. No matter what the subject is, Netflix is going to make the whole thing extremely gripping from start to finish, and we are always in for a ride. The Devil on Trial, with its fascinating subject matter, looked like a sure-shot winner on paper. So how did it turn out after all? Well, my honest answer would be that I am not sure how exactly I feel about it.
Not that it is bad in terms of production quality. It has the shiny veneer of Netflix. It is more or less an exciting watch from start to finish. The editing is quite snappy. The direction by Chris Holt is solid enough. If you are a Netflix documentary aficionado like me, then I am sure you have seen some of Holt’s previous work, like The Jeffrey Dahmer (not to be confused with the series starring Evan Peters) and Ted Bundy docuseries in the Mind of a Monster franchise. With his extensive knowledge and vast experience of documentary filmmaking in both horror and thriller genres, Holt was the right man for the job, and he has done a fairly decent job, if not that great.
Now, I always find it hard to explain my personal belief system, but if I really have to give an answer, then I would call myself an agonistic. I don’t rule out anything that comes off as out of the ordinary, but I also don’t believe anything right away. The Devil on Trial, being Arne’s account of the events and told from his perspective, clearly takes a side. It screams that everything Arne said was real. The devil was real, and it was him who was responsible for Alan’s murder, not Arne. The Glatzel family members (Debbie, David, and their brother, also named Alan), along with Arne himself, meticulously give us an account of what happened. The horror that these people had to go through was unimaginable. Arne was the one who got charged with the murder, but hell started to break loose with poor little David. He was the one who got possessed first, and his life kept getting worse. It affected the Glatzel family so badly that they were looking for a solution by any means. The ideal option was going for an exorcism. Through Alan Glatzel’s words, we learn about the fact that exorcism is not exactly as easy as the horror movies show us. It is quite a process that involves a lot of paperwork, and the church has the final say on it. This sort of reduces it a matter of bureaucracy, I suppose.
Ed and Lorraine Warren soon arrived on the scene, and they were always on the side of the Glatzel family. The two were established demonologists, with many cases under their belts. Most importantly, getting an appointment with the Warrens was easier than getting one from the church. The Devil on Trial pretty much confirms that the real story goes like it was seen in the movie. Arne asks the demonic spirit to leave David during the fateful exorcism, and the rest is the tragedy that follows. Arne gets possessed by the devil and eventually goes on to stab his landlord, Alan, to death. He obviously has no memory of committing the crime. That’s where the defense claiming demonic possession comes in. Interestingly, Arne’s lawyer, Martin Minnella, was not a believer in unexplained things. Minnella also appears as a narrator in the documentary and confirms it himself. But a visit to Ed and Lorraine’s house and listening to the couple does change his mind. Unrelated to the story, we also get a glimpse of the real Annabelle doll here.
Minnella’s decision to use possession by the devil as the defense strategy lost Arne the case, which is not at all surprising. American law has been a faithful follower of proven science backed by solid logic, and this was far from it. However, Arne does get out quite early thanks to his good behavior. Debbie and him do get married and live quite a fulfilling life, which is a positive takeaway from all this. The question that still remains is: What really happened? The skeptic in me can’t rule out things like momentary insanity, although the documentary never utters terms like mental health, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, not that it was mandatory. In the final third, it kind of turns into a medium for the Glatzels to vent about their internet-favorite ghost hunter couples.
The Devil on Trial, unlike the Conjuring movies, doesn’t portray Ed and Lorraine as heroes. They are rather put on trial here by David and his family members. And the charge is quite serious, seeing an opportunity to exploit a family that was battling the crisis. We do get to hear extracts from a phone call between Lorraine and Judie, mother of David, where Lorraine sounds quite excited about the money both of them are about to make, thanks to everything that has happened to them. Well, if we have to believe what we see in The Devil on Trial, then the Glatzels only got a scrape of the fortunes that the Warrens made. Well, this documentary might change the course for them, after all. As far as me and y’all are concerned, we can either ponder over the whole thing or just move on.