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There have been many attempts to capture the essence of Ted Bundy. However in 2019, 30 years after his execution, director Joe Berlinger (Paradise Lost) has completed his two-part project on the most infamous of serial killers.
First came the Netflix documentary Conversations with A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. This engaging four-part series gave audiences a glimpse into the mind of the real man. By doing so, it serves as an effective prologue to Berlinger’s second project, the dramatised retelling of the killer’s story with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile in which superstar Zac Efron plays the murderer.
The choice of the High School Musical actor in the lead role did originally cause a stir of skepticism. Whilst it is true that the chiseled features of Efron do attract swoons from certain quarters, in truth he is perfect for this role. At the heart of the Ted Bundy story is a perfect example of white privilege. He had charm, charisma, good looks and a variety of doors open to him. Instead of setting his sights on something higher, Bundy carried out the brutal rape and slaying of 30 women between February 1974 and February 1978 (though that figure of victims is presumed higher). His all-American persona allowed him access to commit the crimes and slip under the radar of authorities’ countless times as well as manipulate those who were closest to him.
Extremely Wicked rises above the previous tellings of the same story such as 1986 TV movie The Deliberate Strangler or 2002’s Ted Bundy by getting to the heart of who the killer was. Efron is electrifying, throwing off the pin-up shackles in favor of a submerged approach in capturing the evil behind the blue eyes. His performance here is stark, realistic and terrifying. He is so convincing in fact that even though you know the truth, when he tells his single mom girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (an excellent Lily Collins) he is innocent – you almost believe him.
Based on Kloepfer’s memoir The Phantom Prince, her character is the movie’s entry point into Bundy, not any pre-existing public perception of the convicted murderer. We see how the killer charmed those closest to him and the image of himself that he wanted to project out into the world. However, as Kloepfer’s life gets swept up in the courtroom circus of Bundy, through her eyes, we see his shiny façade break and her finally understanding who the man she loved really was.
She isn’t the only person the killer charmed. Through the appearance of John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart – the person who coined the film’s title phrase – we see further the lengths of Bundy’s power to seduce. The judge actually shows remorse in regards having to sentence the killer. While all this is fascinating, the structure of the drama where we mostly see the murderer through the eyes of other people – with his crimes discussed but never depicted – perhaps drains the movie of some intensity.
Berlinger sticks rigidly to details, perhaps a little too much. Occasionally the film gets caught up in the complexities of the trial. This can be forgiven, however, as fitting all this detail into a 110-minutes is more difficult than a four-hour doc.
It is not simply a question of which works better, a dramatisation or a documentary. When it comes to understanding the undeniably twisted mind of a serial killer, here, one acts as an extension of the other and the full premise of Berlinger’s project is understood. Bundy was far to captivating and complex to use only one medium of thought to convey that.
While Zac Efron is startling, the film is overall just an adequate adaptation. Perhaps Berlinger thought it best to tone down the gruesomeness of Bundy’s crimes to focus more on his psychological state and those that surrounded him. Or perhaps he was seduced by him as well. Morally however, the question remains as to whether a murderous animal really deserves a great movie. This statement is reinforced by the post credits list of victims.