Back in the summer of 1979, a great wave of obsession passed over the American public, sweeping away all rational thought. People stopped working, stayed at home, ignored their children, and found an escape from the crushingly terrible American economy. No, I’m not talking about Sony’s launch of everyone’s favorite music-playing brick, the Walkman, even though I can see how you would think that. It was definitely cool to have a 16-pound apparatus attached to your belt so you could listen to Blondie whenever you wanted, so I get it. I’m talking, of course, about the Florida murder trial of Theodore Robert Bundy.
If you were to ask ten true-crime nerds about the trial, they would be able to walk you through an exact timeline that includes all of the different outfits Bundy wore and every knowing glance he threw at the camera. If you ask anyone else, they would at least be able to give you the low-down on what went down. The point is, everyone knows the story of Ted Bundy. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Joe Berlinger’s new film for Netflix, is not here to teach you about the intricacies of the different trials, nor does it want to show you the crimes themselves. It is not here to glamorize the man or to debate his guilt. It is here to show you what it was like to be around Ted, to be entranced by him, to fall for his ruse and live to tell the tale.
Starting with the meeting of Bundy (Zac Efron) and his long-time girlfriend Liz Kendall (played by Lily Collins), the film takes you deep into their relationship and shows you just how fooled everyone was by Ted’s charisma. Not long after the opening of the film, we see Ted come home to Seattle from a trip to Utah where he was attending Law School. Liz meets him at the door with a resounding slap, showing him his mugshot in the local newspaper. You see, Ted had been arrested in Utah for the attempted kidnapping and assault of a young woman and was awaiting trial in Salt Lake City. After a discussion and some playful harassing of Liz’s daughter, things quieted down, and they went about their lives. They stayed together that week, and Liz even went to Salt Lake to attend Ted’s trial. Ted, ever the arrogant optimist, thought that his trial was a cake walk. The Utah police had nothing on him, he believed, so his immediate release was a foregone conclusion. That wasn’t the case, as he was both convicted of the Utah crimes and extradited to Colorado to face new charges against him for murder.
We know the story from here. Ted escaped from the courtroom in Aspen, only to be caught a few days later. He learned from his mistakes and escaped again, this time getting all the way down to Tallahassee, Florida, where there was another string of heinous crimes that caught the attention of the nation. Poor guy just can’t catch a break! It seems like everywhere he goes, women end up being brutally raped and murdered. He has the worst luck I’ve ever seen.
What Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile does from here is take you through both sides of the Florida Capital Murder trial. One side sees Ted and his groupie Carole Ann Boone attempt to manipulate the media while still finding time to vacation in Bone Town, and the other shows how being in Ted’s circle completely destroyed Liz’s life. She starts drinking, a lot, and begins to feel the guilt of her decisions weigh her down in her everyday life. Her phone never stops ringing (Bundy was given unlimited access to the phone since he was acting as an attorney in his own defense) and she begins to fade away into a stupor of vodka and cigarette smoke.
This is what separates this film from many of the other true-crime stories that have been made. Ted, while he is Extremely Handsome, Shockingly Sexy and Nekkid, is not the main focus of this tale. He has the most amount of screen time, yes, but the film starts and stops with the dissolution of Liz’s sanity at the thought of what someone she used to love could have done. Lily Collins dominates the screen as the bedeviled mother and shines the brightest when forced to reconcile her deep love for a man and her disgust at the monster he really was. Efron is brilliant as Bundy, but he is a little too handsome. I never thought I would say this, but I spent most of the time watching his face for the wrong reasons. I was transfixed by his charisma and bravado in the face of damning charges.
“It took me a second viewing this weekend to truly appreciate everything Efron brings to the role. [..] His face switches from arrogance, to pleading victim, to comedic attorney, to charming saint, to devastating monster in the span of just a few seconds.”
It took me a second viewing this weekend to truly appreciate everything Efron brings to the role. He is the perfect victim, having been attacked viciously by the police, the press, the prosecutors, and eventually the woman who abandoned him for a chubby-but-still-very-cute Haley Joel Osment. His face switches from arrogance, to pleading victim, to comedic attorney, to charming saint, to devastating monster in the span of just a few seconds. It’s a brilliant turn from Efron, almost a star-making performance from someone who is already a star.
Where the film fell flat for me is not even a condemnation of the film itself. I understand where Berlinger and the other filmmakers were trying to take the story, and I appreciate the tale it told. Like I mentioned before, they weren’t trying to tell the whole story of Bundy and his crimes, only a small section of his life. They were trying to show the collateral damage that followed him everywhere he went. In doing this, however, you come out with a sanitized view of the man. I get where the “glamorization of the serial killer” crowd is coming from.
If you are one of the three people in the world who went into this movie having known nothing about Bundy or his crimes, you would leave thinking that he may have been an innocent man, railroaded by sheriffs and prosecutors looking for reelection. Even if you see the angle the filmmakers were going for, the film makes his crimes seem small in comparison to their reality. We see only one death on-screen during his semi-confession to Liz, and a few texts screens at the end let us know the extent of his work, but what was lost was the truly disgusting nature of his “sickness”.
Theodore Bundy murdered at least 30 women. He abducted them, clubbed them with a tire iron or a wrench, raped them, and strangled them to death. He then took the bodies into the woods where he would revisit them over the course of several weeks, that is, or until the bodies putrefied to the point of no return. He would wash the corpse’s hair, apply makeup to their long-dead faces, and repeatedly have sex with the dead bodies. That is, if they weren’t one of the twelve women he beheaded with a hacksaw and whose heads he kept in his apartment as trophies. They were his possessions, they were his dolls.
He offered no remorse, no regret, and even went so far as to eventually blame pornography and the devil for his actions. He was a monster, through and through, and the film failed to capture the true evil that resided behind his chameleon-like eyes. One quote from Bundy’s pre-execution confessions captures the feeling that the film lost. When asked about the headless body of Donna Manson (in the film, it’s Liz who asks him about her, but in reality, it was Detective Robert Keppel), Bundy admitted to cutting off her head with a hacksaw and incinerating it in Liz’s family-room fireplace. “Of all the things I did to (Kloepfer),” he told Keppel, “this is probably the one she is least likely to forgive me for. Poor Liz.”.
This is the monster who wore Ted Bundy’s clothes. While Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is beautiful and perfectly acted, it failed to reconcile its tone with the true evil it was portraying.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is now available on Netflix. Share your extremely wicked thoughts, shocking opinions, and vile words with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, our official Subreddit, and the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!