Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil & Vile - titled such as they are to the actual words uttered by the judge upon sentencing serial killer Ted Bundy - has been hotly anticipated by some and fiercely condemned by others. Bundy and his crimes re-entered the public consciousness earlier this year following the release of the Netflix film Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, where we were confronted with facts, footage and analysis of a man - not deranged or dishevelled, but well-educated and charming - who murdered more than thirty women in 1970’s America. An unsettling consensus emerged online among contemporary females (if the media is to be fully believed, although I saw a few instances first-hand) that Bundy was oddly attractive and charming, an attribute which lured in some of his unsuspecting victims. It is this dark realisation, that still permeates the thoughts of some modern viewers, that objectors to true-crime documentaries honed in on to condemn Extremely Wicked... believing that the casting of former teen heart-throb Zac Efron was intended to glamourise him further, and therefore, glamorise his crimes. I believe the film is not problematic - rather it adds fresh insight into Bundy's life, despite his crimes being in the public record.
The film is loosely based on The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, the memoir of Bundy's long-time girlfriend Elizabeth 'Liz' Kloepfer (played in the film by Lily Collins). A single mother to a little girl, Liz has a secretarial job, and while speaking to her friend in a bar in the opening scene, she shares her worries about finding a man now she has a child. She meets Bundy at this bar, and he uses his charm to instantly win the insecure woman over, so much so that she brings him home. They do not have sex, adding to his gentleman persona. The next morning, Liz finds him in her kitchen with her baby daughter - he's making breakfast, wearing an apron - a vision of innocuous domesticity. Harmless. Just the man she wanted.
Zac Efron gives an outstanding performance as Bundy. He is eerily like the real man we see in the documentary footage, but just that bit less irritating. Efron is a talented observer, who has adopted the mannerisms and voice of Bundy with care and attention. He does not seem like he is playing a contemporary character – conversely, his performance is well-observed with regards to portraying a man who lived in the 1970’s, and has dimension and substance. Ultimately, Efron is far more than just a good-looking man playing a charismatic murderer to tell a glamourized version of events (and about as far away from his role as Troy Bolton in High School Musical as you are going to get).
Even knowing the truth, I found myself considering his innocence as the scenes played out, his manner being so reasonable and civilized
John Berlinger directed both the film and the documentary. The film is, for a large proportion, presented to us from Elizabeth’s perspective, who becomes Bundy's long time girlfriend. She is a figure who was scarcely mentioned in the documentary however. Kloepfer was completely ignorant of his crimes, but the film communicates that this ignorance was plausible, and not a failing of a starry-eyed Bundy worshipper. Rather than being a hapless female taken in by his charms at the expense of all reason, we see a woman who does the right thing by the victims, at the expense of her relationship with Bundy. This is a worthy cinematic tale, a tale that deftly takes the limelight off Bundy and arguably eradicates the criticism that the film is problematic, however I do believe, more generally, curiosity about serial killers - people so far removed from normalcy and civility - is a natural human curiosity.
This film does not indulgently bask in the horrific nature of his crimes at all. At first, the structure was slightly disorientating as the chronology regarding the actual events was non-linear, and there are several scenes that linger - initially it felt quite oddly - on the seemingly inconsequential and mundane, which is unusual considering its a film about a serial killer. We see domestic life with Bundy, Elizabeth and her daughter, Bundy speaking to the little girl who had shown him her drawing. We also see a scene where Bundy is released on bail then thrown out of the library while he is trying to study for his law exams, making Bundy look like the victim of a smear campaign, which is what he tells Elizabeth he is subject to. The disorientation began to fade as I realised these scenes were the focus, and not his crimes, because this is the full picture Elizabeth had of Bundy - a civilised family man, who was facing injustice at every corner, who ably covered up his crimes and maintained his innocence throughout his eventual trial. Even knowing the truth, I found myself considering his innocence as the scenes played out, his manner being so reasonable and civilized, a uniquely sane and collected demeanor for a serial killer. Bundy is not depicted commiting the numerous murderers in Extremely Wicked... making the single depiction and allusion to them near the film’s conclusion as shocking to us as it must have been for Elizabeth to discover the truth. If his atrocities were discussed throughout the film, their impact would have been watered down. But when his crimes are discussed, the title of the film contains the most suitable adjectives you can think of to describe them.
Did you know? Director Joe Berlinger has a cameo as 'Colorado Jailhouse Reporter'
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 23 May