Ted Bundy was a good looking, articulate and well educated guy. He was also a brutal murderer who killed at least 30 women, started a media circus around his own case that’s still impactful to this day and redefined what we think of as a serial killer. And it’s very much the first of these two statements that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile focuses on. It’s a bold and at times fascinating angle for a dramatisation of real life events that doesn’t actually quite work, but takes the viewer on an interesting journey nonetheless.
The story is told from the point of view of Liz Kendell (Lily Collins), Bundy’s long term girlfriend who, for whatever reason, refused to accept that Bundy was guilty of the atrocities he carried out despite increasingly damning evidence to the contrary. We say ‘whatever reason’ because although the movie is based on Kendall’s memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, Extremely Wicked doesn’t do a very good job of getting under Kendall’s skin at all, never really letting the audience experience why Liz was willing to turn a blind eye, or why it was a phone call from her that was the initial tip off in the first place.
Instead a lot of time is spent emphasising what a charming and sexy guy Bundy was. Former Disney star Zac Efron takes on the role and he’s perfectly cast for this version of the killer and never less than compelling to watch. Carrying with him the weight of his heartthrob status, Efron looks like Bundy and nails the mannerisms too (the end of the movie includes real footage of Bundy side by side with corresponding moments in the film) and his presence and charisma goes some way to bringing to life the public’s confusion that this man could really have done the terrible things he’s charged with.
Collins is good but she’s not given much to work with and though the premise – how would you cope if the man you loved turned out to be the worst kind of monster – is an interesting one director Joe Belinger doesn’t deliver on its promise. We never get to know Liz at all and many of the flashback scenes she shares with Efron focus on the physical. What you’re left with is a sense that Liz was blinded by the fact that Bundy was hot and they had lots of sex, but never any true sense of her as a person.
Meanwhile Bundy’s victims don’t really have a presence at all. And while the ridiculousness of the televised trial, in which Bundy eventually opted to defend himself, is depicted, it’s never really explored critically. We as viewers never feel implicated and John Malkovich’s turn as Edward Cowart, the judge who presided over the trial, is a particular kicker. While the title of the movie comes from his sentencing speech, it’s a speech which also included words praising Bundy which, coming from a much loved actor like Malkovich, feel even more uncomfortable. Instead of critiquing the implications of this moment, Extremely Wicked almost comes across as sympathetic to Bundy. Details of the Bundy murders are very well publicised so true crime fans aren’t likely to find any new revelations here, though newcomers to the case may still get a kick out of Efron against type and the bizarre events of the trial.
Berlinger is well known as a documentarian winning acclaim for docs like the Paradise Lost trilogy and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and more recently excellent Netflix four part series Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
He obviously knows the Bundy case inside out and the decision to opt for a different kind of angle for this movie is understandable but while the idea of presenting this well documented story from another perspective could have made for potent material the whole film feels under-developed. Worth a watch for Efron’s performance, but for insight into a shockingly evil and vile case, opt for the The Bundy Tapes instead.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is out now in UK theatres and on Sky Cinema