By Monica Castillo
Decades after his death in the electric chair, Ted Bundy’s name still elicits a strong reaction. Because of renewed debate over Bundy’s looks and the trailer release of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile — the new movie headed to Netflix in the fall starring a very charming Zac Efron as the infamous serial killer — these feelings have risen back to the surface.
The movie, which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, earned plenty of attention for its casting choice and the way it approached its subject. Extremely Wicked tries to understand how Bundy was able to commit so many atrocities, across so many state lines, and get away with it all for so long. Joe Berlinger’s film posits that Bundy’s good looks and charming personality had something to do with it. Bundy was allegedly a figure so persuasive, that when the judge sentenced him to death (and gave the movie its distinct title), he said that he wished the killer would have stayed in law school so he could practice in his courtroom. That’s not a statement said in court often. Or ever.
‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Vile and Evil’ star Zac Efron at the film’s Sundance premiere
The movie jumps back in time to get a glimpse of how Bundy became one of the most notorious serial killers in America, but it only manages to do so half-heartedly. Much of the first half of the movie is not from Bundy’s perspective, but that of his longtime girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), and the story begins when she confronts him for the last time before his execution.
As the movie goes on, the story fractures, shifting the focus on Bundy during his many stints in jail. While it seems like the natural course for the movie to follow, focusing on Bundy instead weakens a potentially compelling narrative we haven’t heard before. Kloepfer may not have been the attention-grabbing marquee name, but her story of survival is perhaps the narrative that deserves more screen time. The movie often shows how Bundy would try to cover his tracks, manipulate those around him, and gaslight Kloepfer into believing that he was the real victim getting framed by the police. Hers is a horror story of an abusive relationship, but in trying to meld her perspective with Bundy’s, the movie makes the two points of view into an unholy match.
Efron is easily more charismatic and charming than the real Bundy, who finally shows up at the end of the film. Berlinger, who also directed the Netflix docu-series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, unearths some of Bundy’s most notorious moments in court and faithfully recreates them for his version of events. Yet, in trying to retrace Bundy’s relationship from his side of the story, the movie gives Efron-as-Ted a romantic sheen as he woos Kloepfer, obsessively writes her letters, and calls her incessantly to insist he’s innocent. However, that behavior isn’t romantic; it’s psychologically damaging. The audience sees only a fraction of the toll it takes on her and how his case may have affected her life.
The film also details how Bundy later moved on to a new partner, Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario), while he was in jail. Boone, an old acquaintance-turned-lover, was far from the only woman coming to Bundy’s trial to show support and affection toward the sociopath. Unlike the amount of time given to Kloepfer’s story, there’s very little in the movie to explain how Boone’s obsession with Bundy began, even though she would bear him a child while he waited in a Florida prison for his execution. That phenomenon of women falling for dangerous men isn’t unique to the Bundy case, but it certainly was a part of his legacy.
(Left to right) Joe Berlinger, Lily Collins, and Zac Efron attend the ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile’ premiere
In fact, the appeal of the “charming serial killer” can be found on another Netflix acquisition, You. After a quiet debut on Lifetime, the show — starring Penn Badgley as a problematic stalker, murderer, and love interest — has become a streaming hit on social media since debuting on the service in late December. There are a number of theories over the years to explain the appeal of a forbidden crush on murderers or why the public is so fascinated by serial killers. If anything, Bundy’s case renewed the public’s curiosity in mass murderers like himself and gave a new twist to the old story of a killer on the loose: his so-called good looks, normalcy, and intelligence. The media coverage at the time so often remarked on Bundy’s apparent “charm,” that the legend has overshadowed the facts of his case. Likewise, Extremely Wicked‘s humanization of Bundy makes him seem like less of a monster despite his monstrous crimes.
Because Extremely Wicked tells Bundy’s saga from the perspective of his long term relationship, the details about his victims are hidden from Kloepfer and the audience for most of the movie. It isn’t until Florida’s case against Bundy that viewers get a better look at his less flattering side, which includes ghastly details about the terrible murders of two young Florida State University students and his attack on several of their sorority sisters while they slept.
Berlinger insists that Extremely Wicked does not glamorize Bundy’s actions, but the way the movie tries to understand Bundy’s double life with Kloepfer makes his character morally ambiguous until the end. And though it could be argued that omitting his actions means the movie doesn’t sexualize the violence against Bundy’s victims, putting his crimes aside for so long also allows the audience to see him first as a charming stranger before his darker impulses are revealed.
Right before the credits, Extremely Wicked tries to recenter the attention on Bundy’s known victims, as the 30 names appear on-screen in silence. Yet the scope of his damage against Kloepfer and the countless other women he terrorized is never given a chance to register the same way.