You kids with your David Avocado Wolfes and your Food Babes, you don’t know what a charlatan really is until you know the story of Ed and Lorraine Warren. Husband and wife “paranormal investigators,” the Warrens helped tip the Amityville story over from a mere cash grab to a cultural phenomenon that is still hotly debated more than forty years later. They’ve had exactly one good fictitious movie made about them (2013’s The Conjuring), and a whole lot of corny “documentaries” depicting the vast and varied ways they’ve conned desperate, naive people into believing in “demonic possession.”
The Warrens even stuck their opportunistic noses into a criminal trial, that of 19 year-old Arne Cheyenne Johnson, charged with the murder of his landlord. It was the first trial to use a “the Devil made me do it” defense, claiming that Johnson was literally possessed by a demon that had originally taken hold of his fiancee’s adolescent brother, and the Warrens presented themselves as expert witnesses (securing a sweet book and movie deal in the process, of course).
The defense was thrown out before anyone even got to testify, and Johnson was later convicted of manslaughter, so I’m not sure why anyone still thought a movie needed to be made about it (except perhaps to ride the dwindling Amityville Horror wave), but nevertheless, we got one, with 1983’s The Demon Murder Case. Kevin Bacon, less than a year away from stardom in Footloose and more wooden here than a barrelful of sawdust, plays the character based on Johnson, renamed Kenny Miller. Kenny lives with his fiancee’s family, including her troubled younger brother, Brian (Charles Fields), who is apparently tormented by a demon.
The movie expends no effort in establishing who these people are, or how Brian originally came into contact with the malevolent being he refers to as “the Beast,” and whom, going by Brian’s description, evidently looks like Freddy Krueger with deer hooves. Brian’s mother (Joyce Van Patten) briefly mentions having recently moved in an attempt to escape the Beast, but when that doesn’t work they reach out to the Catholic Church for help, as well as our good buddies Ed and Lorraine Warren, here renamed Guy and Charlotte Harris, and played by Andy Griffith and Beverlee McKinsey.
Failing to heed Guy’s warning against doing such a thing, Kenny challenges the Beast to leave Brian’s body and enter his instead. The Beast obliges, and soon Kenny is afflicted as well, experiencing frightening visions and even, in one scene, getting on all fours and growling. Things eventually come to a head when Kenny, driven into an infernal rage by his fiancee’s obnoxious boss, stabs him to death. As in real life, the demonic possession defense is thrown out, but the movie suggests that it’s at the unbeliever’s peril, as the Beast remains free to torment more souls. Kenny’s fiancee (played by Liane Langland) gets the best line in the whole movie, when, during a TV interview after the trial, she says “We haven’t done anything for Kenny yet, but he definitely still needs a full exorcism.”
Despite the presence of the Warrens, this leans more closely to The Exorcist than The Amityville Horror, albeit a watered down, barely PG rated The Exorcist. Constrained by the limits of network television standards and practices in a pre-Walking Dead era, no one’s telling anyone that their mother sucks cocks in Hell here. Unless you find Dutch angles and fisheye lenses terrifying (or the voice of Harvey Fierstein–no, really!–coming out of a kid’s mouth), The Demon Murder Case is hilariously tame, though there is one pretty great scene where Brian, while being exorcised by wildly overacting church bishop Eddie Albert, starts blowing raspberries at him.
Fully three quarters of the movie is given over to the events leading up to the titular “demon murder,” and yet the dramatic stakes are so low as to be almost negligible. It feels as though character development was swapped out in favor of Richard Masur, playing Kenny’s lawyer, glowering at the judge who quite reasonably doesn’t buy demonic possession as a defense for murder, and this is a mistake. After all, when the characters in a movie barely have names, let alone any sort of plot arc, it’s hard to be emotionally invested in what happens to them. Further lessening the dramatic impact here is that, really, the murder victim is kind of an asshole, constantly belittling Kenny, and all but salivating whenever he’s in his fiancee’s presence. On that alone one could see how someone might want to kill this guy, possessed by “the Beast” or not, but the murder, reflecting the real life event, is clearly in self-defense, with several witnesses present, which makes you wonder why anyone involved in the case felt they had to come up with such a cockamamie defense in the first place.