Movie review: Zac Efron turns on the charm as Ted Bundy in biopic

Fred Hawson

Posted at Jul 21 2019 05:00 PM

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy in 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile'

I knew the name of Ted Bundy as that of a notorious American serial killer of young women back in 1970s. Aside from that fact of general information though, I knew nothing more about this man. This year, crime docu-drama director Joe Berlinger made "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," a film about Bundy, based on "The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy," the memoirs of his girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall. Unexpectedly cast as Bundy was Zac Efron, eager to shed off his "High School Musical" image with this offbeat role.

In 1969, Liz Kendall was a mousy single mother who was swept off her feet when she met the handsome law student Ted Bundy in a bar. The two eventually live together and raise Liz's daughter Molly together. By 1974, Ted was implicated and tried as the suspect in the series of murders of young women committed cross-country from Washington, Utah and Colorado and later, Florida. Ted turned on his charm and intellect to act as his own attorney in court. Meanwhile, Liz turned to alcohol to deal with her stress.

With his looks and sex appeal, Efron turned out to be a good choice to play Ted Bundy. He was able to project Bundy's confidence, sleaziness and eerie sense of danger, yet still remaining irresistible to women. Despite being accused of murdering a series of women, Bundy was still supported by his own fawning fan club of women during his sensational televised court proceedings. Efron made that phenomenon believable.

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There were several court scenes which looked unrealistic because of Bundy's brazen behavior. I thought Efron was being very over-the-top in his acting in those scenes. However, these events were later shown to have actually happened in real life in news reels shown with the closing credits. Of course, there was some cinematic embellishment, but truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. 

Despite being the point of view from where Ted's story was told, Liz Kendall's character was decidedly downbeat and depressing, and a wan Lily Collins played her just like that. In contrast, Kaya Scodelario aggressively played Carole Ann Boone, a woman who even moved to Florida to stand by her man Bundy. 

Among the recognizable supporting actors were a very overweight Haley Joel Osment (yes, the kid from "The Sixth Sense") as Liz's friend Jerry, Jim Parsons (Sheldon from "Big Bang Theory") as prosecuting attorney Larry Simpson, and John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart, from whose lips the words of this film's very long unwieldy title came from.

Thankfully, director Joe Berlinger resisted the temptation to recreate the heinous gory crimes. In fact, he did not dwell on the crimes themselves but instead on the legal and personal proceedings arising from them. If we never knew about Ted Bundy, we would get charmed by Efron's convincing and manipulative portrayal and actually be unsure if he really did these crimes or not. 

A serial killer can look as normal as anyone else, or he can even be brilliant and charismatic. Berlinger's subtle approach certainly drove home that cautionary message. 

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."