Ted Bundy confessed to killing more than 30 people in the 1970s. Told through the eyes of his longtime girlfriend Liz Kendall, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, consigns this to subtext. But not because no one wanted to see Zac Efron, who stars as Bundy, committing such heinous acts. People did, and the film has been getting some flak about it.
Director Joe Berlinger doesn’t focus his camera softly. His film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, about the West Memphis Three, was criticized for its graphic documentation. Berlinger, who immersed himself in Bundy for his Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, speaks with Den of Geek about how much violence is too much, and how much isn’t enough.
“It is interesting that back then people criticized the use of violent imagery, and today some people are criticizing Extremely Wicked for not using violent imagery,” Berlinger says. “The use of that opening crime scene footage, which at the time was a very considerate decision, and you didn’t really see that level of graphic footage in a documentary before, so some people were upset by it.” The film captured how a town whose “need for closure was so immediate” they could be duped into convicting teenagers on “virtually no evidence.”
As a feature film of past crimes, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile had no such immediacy. “The decision to not show violence in the Bundy movie has to do with the design of the film,” Berlinger says. “The film is not about a serial killer killing. There have been many great films and many irresponsible films that are about the killer killing. That to me is less new and less scary than how a killer deceives, manipulates, and fits in. That’s what the movie is portraying.”
The monster at the center of the feature film doesn’t look monstrous, which makes him more frightening.
“We want to think a serial killer is some two-dimensional social outcast who looks weird, acts weird because somehow that implies they’re easily identifiable, and therefore you can avoid the fate,” Berlinger says. “What Bundy teaches us is that very often these are people who fit into society. Bundy fit in, had lots of friends. Members of the Mormon Church showed and thought fellow church member, Bundy, was a terrific guy.”
The “terrific guy” serial killing law student was charismatic enough to take a lead in a high school musical. He was charming, intelligent, witty and good-looking. That makes him scarier.
“I want people, particularly Zac Efron’s demographic, the people who think that Zac as a persona can do no wrong, I want them to invest in this relationship as the movie is unfolding to actually want that relationship to succeed,” he says. By the end of the movie, he wants “the audience to feel the same level of deception and betrayal. I want people to say, ‘Oh my god, I was liking this character’ so you can have an understanding of how these psychopaths operate, how they seduce us.”
Intercutting the graphic reality is not going to win the character any sympathy points. Showing Zac committing the violence asks too much of viewers. “I want the audience suspend the intellectual knowledge this is a movie about a serial killer,” Berlinger says. “”You become invested in that relationship because movies teach us that you root for the love interest.”
Paradise Lost, which led to the release of death-row inmate Damien Echols, had to present its strongest case quickly. It opened with the shock and horror of the crime to help the audience see how the town might have been blind to the truth. Putting blinders on the violence in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile doesn’t stop it from intruding on other senses. “We certainly hear about violence,” Berlinger says. “The movie has the 16-millimeter footage intercut with the Seattle killings. When he goes to Florida, we hear news reports of the Florida killings. The trial certainly talks about evidence.”
Berlinger, who uncovered vast collusion in his documentary Whitey: United States of America V. James J. Bulger, is adept at presenting evidence. Chevron Corporation subpoenaed outtakes from 2009 oil industry exposé Crude. He directed true-crime, although he hates that term, investigative films Brothers’ Keeper, Gone: The Forgotten Women of Ohio, Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru, and the Starz series Wrong Man, which re-examined cases of convicted murderers. The series resulted in courtroom reexaminations and even had victims’ families giving a second look at the documentaries’ testimony.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile isn’t about retrying a case though, nor is it about proclaiming the innocence of a convicted killer. It is a human story. Much like the townspeople at the center of Paradise Lost didn’t want to look too hard at what was in front of them, Bundy’s girlfriend Liz Kendall, played by Lily Collins in the film, also averted her eyes from the gruesome truth.
“More importantly, there’s been some criticism that the film must be glorifying Bundy and being disrespectful to the victims because we don’t show the physical killing,” Berlinger says. “I find that deeply troubling that that is how people think because to me, recreating the moment of death for a victim, to me that is disrespectful. Showing how people met their end to me is not something I’m interested in doing because I think that’s inherently disrespectful.
“We live in an era where with a few keystrokes even an eight-year-old can call up the most degrading, free, violent, pornographic images, images of extreme violence against women. Making a movie that’s a catalog of depravity to me is both not the function of this film since I’m not interested in talking about killing, but rather how the serial killer deceives. I think that’s a much more valuable lesson than knowing how they kill. I just think it’s infinitely more respectful to the victims not to show,” Berlinger concludes.
The title Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile comes from the judge at the 1979 trial. Edward Cowart, played by John Malkovich in the film, respected Bundy’s intelligence and legal acuity, but he found the horrors too overwhelming to allow the monster to live. Berlinger’s film presents the good side of the killer, the side people who were closest saw. They couldn’t recognize Bundy from the things he did. They disassociated from the act. Berlinger lets us fill in our own blanks so it’s easier to see a threat that looks too good to be true.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile premiered on Netflix on May 3.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.