The Devil on Trial Review – An overdramatized tale that misses its point

By Kieran Burt
Published: October 17, 2023 (Last updated: October 19, 2023)
The Devil on Trial Review - An overdramatized tale that misses its point


Netflix has dragged up this story to boost its Halloween watch numbers, but its over-dramatization of facts and ignorance of the people involved miss what really happened. The reenactments detract from the truth, using cliche horror elements, and it doesn’t choose to show the full story until near the very end.

Humanity is obsessed with horror. Not just in modern times, either. Humans have told scary stories about the supernatural for hundreds of years. It’s no surprise that these stories sometimes their way into the legal system. In this case, the teen Arne Cheyenne Johnson attempted to use the supernatural defense of demonic possession when he was on trial for the killing of Alan Bono in 1981. Netflix retells this story in their documentary, The Devil on Trial, as well as the background surrounding the case.

It’s important to say from the outset that during the case, the judge forbade the use of the defense of demonic possession in court. As such, Johnson was forced to rely on self-defense, which managed to get him convicted of first-degree manslaughter, for which he only served a few years in jail. Knowing this makes the story less compelling and less scary, which is no doubt why Netflix waited until near the end of The Devil on Trial to reveal this.

The Devil on Trial review and plot summary

The majority of the documentary follows David Glatzel and his family, which Johnson eventually married into. Glatzel claims that he was possessed by the devil when he was 11. Interviews with him and his family tell the story, using dramatic reenactment and foreboding music to create tension.

The young Glatzel helped his sister Debbie Glatzel move out with her then fiancée, and he claimed that a demonic spirit took hold. In the night that followed, he said he woke up screaming, claiming that the devil spoke to him. His family said they heard unexplained noises in the attic, which the documentary dramatizes to mean the whole house was shaking, glass exploding, and all manner of potentially scary things.

The family got renowned demonologists and psychics Ed and Lorraine Warren to help, who told the family that the devil was inside David and that it would begin to control him, and would cause him to swear and act uncontrollably. And lo and behold that’s exactly what happened to David. The audio that captures these outbursts is truly scary, but it gets less effective as the documentary repeats the same clip.

He was eventually brought to a church to be exorcised, with foreboding music, the sound effects of church bells tolling, and a lone dog barking to raise the tension as much as possible. During this, the demon would allegedly transfer to Johnson, where it would remain dormant until it allegedly made him kill Bono. He attempted to use this as his defense, which the judge predictably threw out.

It turns out that the Warrens were good at conning people. They approached David’s mother with an author to write a book on the possession, which the Warrens made $81,000 off, while the Glatzel family made just $4,500. The pair also wanted to make the story “more scary” so people would buy it. The Warrens also made money off the Conjuring franchise, an entry of which was inspired by this story. There’s also an explanation that this incident split the family, which gives the entire story a feeling of tragedy rather than horror. This would have been a different, more compelling angle to focus on, rather than replaying the horror.

This is where the documentary falls apart. Throughout the entire runtime, Netflix has jazzed up parts of The Devil on Trial to make it feel scarier to get views, adding tense music and sound effects, and it only spends a few minutes on the bit that actually matters, instead of telling the story honestly. As this point was buried deep after a lot of the horror stuff it tries to pull, it feels like the documentary is conning the audience.

Is The Devil on Trial worth watching?

The Devil on Trial is the worst type of documentary.

It focuses its story on the wrong aspect, instead of seeing a family that’s been harmed and conned out of money and a criminal defense that no one in their right mind would take seriously, it goes for the overplayed horror, jazzing up parts of the story to make them sound scarier than they were. This is clearly being released as a scary Halloween true story, but in doing so it misses both the truth and the humans at the center.

What did you think of The Devil on Trial? Comment below.


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