There’s something deeply unsettling about watching Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, otherwise known as the movie in which Zac Efron plays serial killer Ted Bundy.
That’s not surprising in and of itself — Bundy murdered at least 28 young women (that we know of) over a four-year crime spree that also included kidnapping, burglary, and grand theft auto. But the disturbing feeling comes not from watching these things unfold. Rather, it stems from the fact that they seem almost irrelevant to the story director Joe Berlinger is trying to tell.
Based on the book The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, by his former girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has been pushed as a companion piece to Berlinger’s four-part docuseries, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which premiered on Netflix back in January. By framing events from the perspective of Liz (Lily Collins), who eventually turns out to be the one to report Ted’s identity to the police, viewers would allegedly gain insight into how someone like Ted was able to fool so many for so long, and gain the kind of fan support that he did.
The idea of watching a woman being gaslit by her handsome serial killer boyfriend in real time is an interesting one, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed that movie a lot. Unfortunately, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile does that in name only.
Though Liz does provide a narrative framework — the film begins and ends with her visiting Ted in prison the day before his 1989 execution, then goes back in time to follow their love story, with his multiple arrests and trials woven in — it’s not about her at all. Instead, it focuses on the killer’s infamous charm to such a degree that it makes you wonder whether we’re actually meant to sympathise with him. In a more honest world, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile might have been called Ted Bundy Fucks. (We do, in fact, see him have consensual sex several times.)
Partly, that’s down to casting. Efron gives a striking performance, but the film seems unwilling to frame him as a real villain. And in a way, that was true of Bundy himself, who was able to get away with so much on charm and good looks alone. But we know that already, and the movie doesn’t really go out of its way to offer more.
What’s disappointing about Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (other than its ridiculously long title), is that if feels like a missed opportunity. There’s only so many times we can watch Ted’s tender acceptance of Liz as a single mother, his devotion to her daughter Molly (played by Macie Carmosino, Ava Inman, and Morgan Pyle), his thoughtful gestures — cooking breakfast, playing in the snow, wearing a lame birthday hat — before we, like Liz, start to feel enamoured.
The problem is that the film doesn’t balance that with Liz’s complicated feelings about Ted, which we only find out about in hindsight, when she’s pouring out her guilt about having landed him in jail. Imagine if we’d seen Liz grow progressively suspicious of this gourmet omelet-maker. The film would then have been about her journey to realising his true identity, rather than his journey to convince her otherwise. Instead, we mostly see Ted as he sees himself: a victim, manipulated by the press, the courts, and the police for their own political ends.
In fact, in a film that’s reportedly supposed to be about her, and the devastating toll this relationship had on her life, Liz barely gets any screen time. One scene towards the end of the film, in which a distraught Liz recalls a giggly sexual encounter with Ted, suddenly pivots to his perspective, as he watches her splayed on the bed — the perfect prey.
And then there’s Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), whom Bundy uses to feed soundbites to the press, and actually marries in mid-trial, thereby guaranteeing him sympathy from young women. What is she thinking when finds out she’s pregnant with a convicted murderer’s child? We don’t know, because the film never makes it a priority to focus on her inner thoughts — we see her only as a simpering, lovestruck pawn. In other words, we know her through Ted. The same goes for the women populating the gallery at his Florida trial, who whoop like cheerleaders whenever he speaks.
Also conspicuously absent from the film are Bundy’s victims. Carol DaRonch (Grace Victoria Cox), who managed to survive an encounter with Ted and testified at his trial in Utah, is the only one to really get any facetime. Only once do we see Bundy actually get violent, in a flashback towards the end of the film that’s meant to confirm that this lovely charmer really is who everyone says he is.
Faced with mild backlash after the film’s premiere at Sundance and the subsequent trailer release, Efron has been adamant that the point of the film is not to glorify or romanticise the killer.
"I am not into portraying a serial killer or anybody of this nature or glamorsing them in any way … it does not glamorise the killing," he said during an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "This is an important thing for people to hear."
The intentions, I’m sure, were good. But ultimately Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile seems as enamoured with Efron as the world was with Bundy. And though the film ends with a list of all the names of Ted’s victims, what you’re really left with is the image of his six pack.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is out on Sky Cinema and in selected cinemas on May 3.