Directed by Joe Berlinger
Starring Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario
Ted Bundy is one of the most mythologized serial killers in pop culture. At last count, there have been six movies detailing his murder spree, one which saw him killing more than 30 women across four states from the late-‘70s to the early-‘80s—and that’s not even counting the documentaries (including Netflix’s recent Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes) or the movies where he is mentioned (like the mid-‘90s Sigourney Weaver-Holly Hunter thriller Copycat). So why go back to Ted Bundy now? What new nugget of information can we possibly excavate by revisiting his story?
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In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, director Joe Berlinger offers an intriguing angle: the effect of the murders and the ensuing media circus on his relationship with the only woman that, according to the movie at least, he conceivably loved: law clerk and single mother Liz Kloepfer. The film is based on Liz’s memoir The Phantom Prince (her author name, Elizabeth Kendall, is a pseudonym), detailing her years loving and sharing a house with the infamous serial killer. The problem is, Berlinger (who also helmed the Netflix documentary) and his screenwriter Michael Werwie seem to be having trouble deciding whose perspective they really want to follow.
It might be a bridge too far to ask audiences to block out everything they’ve heard about Ted Bundy, but that’s precisely what Extremely Wicked asks you to do at first. After a narrative framing device that has Liz (Lily Collins) visiting Ted (Zac Efron) in a Florida maximum-security prison, the movie goes into flashback, to the first time they met in a Seattle bar. Efron’s casting (the star also serves in an executive-producer capacity) is clever: His matinee-idol looks almost make you believe that Liz and Ted’s first encounter is a meet-cute. And to give Efron the props due to him, the sinister way Berlinger shoots his preternaturally bright blue eyes, and then hoods them in shadow—dream sliding into nightmare—adds a true fillip of terror to those moments when Liz wonders if she and her little daughter were ever in danger.
Bundy’s serial-killing sprees are never actually shown in gruesome detail, except for one pivotal murder at the end; they are only referred to in media reports, primarily because that’s how Liz would have experienced the whole thing. But the movie keeps skating over important aspects of Liz’s story to highlight its executive-producing star. It skips over the first five years of their relationship (which is when Bundy’s career as a murderer reportedly came into full flowering), and then fast-forwards to the time when Bundy was first stopped by a traffic cop in Utah (which is when his catch-escape-catch dance with the law first started). Likewise, the movie treats a revelation about how much Liz suspected Ted of wrongdoing as a third-act twist, when it should have treated it as a plot impetus: What was it like, suspecting the man you loved—the de facto father to your little girl—of murdering two girls at a lake? What was it like having that eating at your mind?
Extremely Wicked refuses to engage with the disturbingly ambiguous questions of Liz’s story: Did Bundy really love her, or did he use her ready-made family setup as subterfuge? Did he really love her, or was she being cased as a potential victim too? Instead, it ends up re-enacting events that have been dramatized in other Bundy biopics—two daring escapes from authorities in Colorado, another run-in with a traffic cop in Florida, the elevator showdown with Tallahassee sheriff Ken Katsaris (Kevin McClatchy), the televised murder trial (featuring The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons as lead prosecutor Larry Simpson and John Malkovich as judge Edward Cowert, from whose closing statement the film gets its ungainly title)—relegating Liz to a chain-smoking, liquor-swilling wreck of a TV spectator.
It even runs archival footage of events it’s already portrayed over the end credits. To what end? To show us how faithful the period details were? To show us how close Efron’s portrayal mimicked Bundy? Extremely Wicked tries to sell us on the vision of what Bundy saw himself as—a charismatic innocent—even long after Liz had woken up from her fever dream. In other words, it falls back on the default position of making Bundy the star, when he should have been a supporting player in Liz’s story.
Photograph from Voltage Pictures