Hot on the heels of a Netflix documentary series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, focusing on notorious serial murderer Ted Bundy, comes a feature film centring on the same figure from veteran documentary maker Joe Berlinger, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
In his ostentatiously titled but brilliantly executed movie, Berlinger turns the thriller genre on its head by keeping the true horror of Bundy’s crimes during the 70s in the US mostly off screen and out of sight, only to be glimpsed at through news clippings and police photos, and instead shows us the Bundy known to his one-time partner, who until the bitter end lived in denial, Elizabeth Kloepfer.
Using the lover’s memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, as a springboard, the director teases out the devastating ease with which Bundy was able to charm and seduce his way through committing horrific crimes against women with impunity for years before the law finally caught up with him. Berlinger meticulously recreates the media-sensationalised events of the case – almost to a fault, as the picture begins to descend into an endless catalogue of televised interviews and court room scenes.
But Zac Efron proves to be genius casting as Bundy, with his bona fide teen pin-up status, ripped physique and heavy-eyebrow-framed piecing blue eyes luring the audience into false camaraderie with his character, just as the charismatic killer did in real life. Filling almost every frame of the film, Efron emerges transformed since the days of High School Musical eye-candy to reveal something far more compellingly nuanced and devastatingly convincing as the sinister killer, no doubt marking a turning point in his hitherto type-cast career.
Lily Collins puts in a good turn as girlfriend Liz, though is perhaps over-sidelined considering it’s her point of view we’re seeing through most of the movie, while John Malkovich makes his screen moments count in a pitch-perfect take on Edward Cowart, the presiding judge at Bundy’s trial, whose closing remarks sentencing the murderer to death give Extremely Wicked its unforgettable title.
While viewers may feel the Berlinger-directed-Efron incarnation of Bundy skates a little too close to glamorising a man who in reality committed some of the 20th century’s most disturbing and depraved atrocities to countless innocent young women, this is also the film’s greatest achievement, testing the audience’s resolve not to be duped by this man’s endless manipulative charms. Berlinger places gentle nods to the evil lurking beneath the facade – Bundy clutching a knife as he smiles and rustles up breakfast, caressing Liz’s neck ominously, looking at her under the sheets with a torch – constantly challenging us to remain in denial as his partner did.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile also introduces the Bundy case to a generation – that of the core Zac Efron fanbase in fact – who did not grow up in its aftermath, to deliver a chillingly relevant message to not succumb to the illusions about individuals too easily made manifest in our era of fake news and pervasive social media.
By Sarah Bradbury. First published on The Upcoming on 29th April 2019.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is released in select cinemas and on Sky Cinema on 3rd May 2019.
Watch the trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile here: