Ted Bundy is back on Netflix, and he’s totally ripped this time. In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Zac Efron plays a very fashion forward Ted Bundy where recreations of ugly 1970s clothes are perfectly tailored to show off the High School Musical star’s now massively pumped pectorals.
I know Ted Bundy has the rep for being the handsome serial killer, but the guy had a unibrow! He also had a thing for bowties like the wannabe Grover Norquists you find at local GOP conventions. Sure, he was hotter than, say, Ed Kemper, the 300-pound Coed Butcher of Santa Cruz, but he was never Zac Efron hot.
Ted Bundy is about as unavoidable as Game of Thrones spoilers in today’s media landscape, but if you need a refresher, he murdered at least 30 young women across several states starting in 1974 (if not earlier) until his capture in Florida in 1978. He raped many of his victims while they were alive and kept on raping them after their deaths. Women infatuated with his celebrity swooned over him during his trials, yet revelers held a real rager outside of Florida State Prison to cheer his execution in 1989.
While his turn as Bundy is meant to show Efron is ready for heftier material than playing the Rock’s sidekick in Baywatch (2017), he also risks becoming another Steve Railsback, the actor who portrayed Charles Manson so convincingly in the made-for-TV version of Helter Skelter (1976) that he was mostly relegated to horror films despite the critical acclaim. Fortunately for Efron’s likeability, Extremely Wicked is a movie about America’s most prolific serial killer that lacks any serial killings.
Based on the memoir The Phantom Prince; My Life with Ted Bundy by one-time Bundy girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall (née Kloepfer), Extremely Wicked attempts to probe the nature of denial, but the film doesn’t give us all that much to deny until some too-little-too-late reveals near the end showing Bundy’s extreme violence only in faint glimpses. The film does have a few scenes of Efron being a little creepy with Lily Collins (daughter of Phil) as Kendall, but veers away from showing the clues that the real Kendell found of her beau’s depravity.
According to Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, the four-part Netflix documentary series also directed by Extremely Wicked director Joe Berlinger, Bundy set off red flags with Kendall when he told her about stalking sorority girls. After she discovers a bag of women’s panties and bowl of random house keys in Bundy’s apartment and a knife under the front seat of his VW, Kendall begins to think the man she’s dating may be the Ted that police want in connection to several murders of young college women in the Seattle area.
Extremely Wicked could have better served its audience and its subject matter if it had depicted Kendall making these discoveries and the dread that comes with them. Instead it holds this close to the vest through its first two acts. Keeping us in the dark about Bundy’s true nature robs Kendall of her agency, and leaves her as a doormat with an eccentric boyfriend. We can only wonder if this film would be improved if a woman adapted the source material instead of Michael Werwie, a first-time screenwriter with slicked-back hair and a B.S. in Business Leadership with multiple minors from USC.
A common criticism of director Berlinger’s Bundy Tapes is that using audio interviews with Bundy as the fulcrum of the docuseries gave the killer a platform. Bundy was obviously gaslighting reporter Stephen Michaud during these interviews and now he’s gaslighting us ad infinitum via binge-watching. In Extremely Wicked, Berlinger is so concerned about maintaining doubt about Bundy’s guilt to make his thought experiment work, that he risks creating a Bundy truther counter-narrative.
If I had watched only Extremely Wicked, I might think that Bundy could have been innocent. The film’s dénouement doesn’t generate enough audience revulsion to counterbalance the sympathies of its poor, put upon version of Ted Bundy worked up over most of its runtime. And the list of Bundy’s victims that plays over end credits seems like so much ass-covering from a film that mostly denies them.
The deficiencies of Extremely Wicked gave me a begrudging appreciation of the ultra-low-budget 2002 biopic Ted Bundy, which is available with a subscription to Amazon Prime although I can’t quite recommend it. Veteran TV actor Michael Reilly Burke captures Bundy’s law-school-dropout smarminess even though his eyebrows are too well-trimmed. Burke cuddles with corpses in his tighty-whities and puts lipstick on the decaying severed heads of his victims — things Bundy actually did, although you wouldn’t know it through Berlinger’s oeuvre.
The 2002 film also shows Bundy jacking off in alleyways and stealing TVs — for no reason. It’s a depiction that makes Bundy seem small, mean, and gross in a film that’s very hard to watch, as any film about Ted Bundy should be.