Thanks to Netflix and Joe Berlinger, vicious and prolific serial killer Ted Bundy is having himself a moment.
Thanks to Netflix and Joe Berlinger, vicious and prolific serial killer Ted Bundy is having himself a moment. On the heels of Berlinger’s true crime docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which Netflix released in January, the acclaimed documentarian now turns his sights toward a feature film about Bundy with Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile.
The narrative surrounding Bundy’s lurid crimes has always skewed toward fascination with the fact that such a relatively handsome and articulate young man could be a frenzied thrill killer. As depicted in the media circus that surrounded Bundy—who twice escaped police custody and famously served as his own attorney at trial—his charming veneer drew scores of infatuated groupies, the very types of young women Bundy would prey upon, to attend his court proceedings and stand before TV cameras to speculate on his innocence. Extremely Wicked falls victim to a similarly misguided fascination with Bundy, glamorizing him to the point of making him into the film’s determined antihero.
A large part of this is due to the fact that the film serves as an adaptation of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Liz Kloepfer’s 1981 memoir (published under the name Elizabeth Kendall) about her relationship with the notorious murderer. By definition, such a film excludes direct depiction of Bundy (Zac Efron) committing his crimes and instead focuses on his interpersonal relationships, both with Liz (Lily Collins) and Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario), the latter of whom married the imprisoned Bundy and gave birth to his child while he sat on death row.
And yet, while such an approach would conceivably lend itself to a film less exploitative of horrific violence against women, Extremely Wicked relegates Liz’s experience to melodramatic backstory, defining her only in terms of her relation to the murderer she nearly married.
Bundy, portrayed with both intensity and impressive nuance by Efron, remains the star of the show, due in part to the fact that Kloepfer, whose memoir was published nearly four decades ago, has retreated from public life in the intervening years. Without Kloepfer’s cooperation with the film, Berlinger is left to his own devices, and he humanizes Bundy to the point of leading the viewer (at least until the film’s final minutes) to begin questioning whether it’s possible the man was framed all along, as he so vehemently asserted.
When the names of the 30 women that Bundy eventually confessed to killing appear onscreen at the film’s conclusion, it feels coldly and uncomfortably like a credit sequence for those who played a small role in building the Legend of Ted Bundy rather than any sort of tribute to victims. In lieu of developing virtually anything else about Liz’s character other than her relationship to Bundy, Berlinger also oddly casts Liz as guilt-stricken over the fact she called in the initial tip about Ted after seeing a police sketch on TV. But in doing so, the director leaves out the further evidence that led Kloepfer to make such a decision in real life. In her book, she details finding caches of women’s undergarments and assorted keys Bundy kept, as well as his unnerving admission that he sometimes followed sorority girls home.
But facts don’t always make the best story, and so Extremely Wicked instead ramps up the dissonance between Bundy’s charming facade and the feral ferocity of his crimes. This admittedly plays to Efron’s strengths, and his performance is compelling enough to make Extremely Wicked an intriguing if problematic film, one particularly suited for a lazy-weekend Netflix viewing, but not worthy of much deeper consideration given its unseemly romanticizing of Bundy’s rapier wit and winsome demeanor.
By the time this often surprisingly mawkish interpersonal drama—which includes Haley Joel Osment as Liz’s co-worker and admirer who could never mean as much to her as Ted—shifts over to a courtroom drama, and familiar faces pop up like Jim Parsons as a smug prosecutor and John Malkovich as Judge Edward D. Cowart, the film belabors focus on Bundy’s redeeming qualities (something the nationally televised trial certainly did as well). He routinely upstages his own attorneys and draws an almost fawning admiration from the presiding judge. All this leads to a film that uses Liz more as a prop than a person faced with a nearly unfathomable dilemma, minimizing her own story in service to further burnishing the enduring mystique of a legendary monster.