The excessive number of documentaries and films dedicated to serial killers suggests we’re fascinated by those who carry out the most heinous and inhumane offences. And of all the serial killers, Ted Bundy remains one of the most notorious. It’s not only his reprehensible crimes that have shocked and sickened people since the Seventies, but the fact no one saw it coming. The new film, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which stars Zac Efron as Bundy, shows how people, including those closest to him, had such a tough time accepting the repugnant truth.
Good-looking, charming and charismatic, Bundy didn’t fit the accepted profile for a mass murderer and it was these attributes that allowed him to lure his victims and evade incarceration for years. Even during the court case – the first to be televised in America – he earned a legion of fans, some of whom would turn up to show their support at the courthouse. He revelled in a form of celebrity and hysteria, which continued despite his being convicted of murder in 1979 and sentenced to death.
Despite constant denials, he confessed to murdering over 30 women in the days before his execution in the hope it would secure him more time. Experts believe the actual number of victims was much higher.
He was a kidnapper, rapist, murderer and necrophiliac, but even after his death by electrocution on January 1989, his devotees remained ardent.
Extremely Wicked is different from most serial killer movies. It doesn’t wallow in gratuitous violence, track the investigation, or dive into the murderer’s motivations.
Instead, we follow events from the viewpoint of Bundy’s long-time girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer, played by Lily Collins, who refuses, at least initially, to believe he can be capable of the crimes.
“By structuring the action from his real-life girlfriend’s perspective, it is not the usual voyeuristic serial killer film,” notes director Joe Berlinger, the man also behind the recent Netflix series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
“The audience experiences the unfolding of events as Liz perceives them - that Ted is caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of unfortunate coincidences…an innocent man caught in the system. This allows me to subvert the serial killer movie genre by providing the viewer with the tension of a wrongful conviction saga while slowly revealing the true meaning of what’s actually unfolding.”
Berlinger is considered a pioneer in true crime documentaries, someone who shines a spotlight on social injustices and wrongful convictions. The irony of his latest project is not lost on him.
“Obviously, a wrongfully convicted person is someone who’s innocent, but everyone believes is guilty. This script gave me the opportunity to explore the opposite phenomenon … a guilty person who everyone around him believes to be innocent,” says Berlinger.
His decision to cast Zac Efron in the role of Bundy is inspired.
The idea of this Hollywood heartthrob and former High School Musical star depicting a serial killer doesn’t sit easy with us, and the actor himself revealed he had reservations.
But that’s the point Berlinger’s making. As Efron’s Bundy warns us, “Murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin. People don’t realise that there are killers among them. People that they liked, loved, lived with and admired could the next day turn out to be the most demonic people imaginable.”
We are only shown one killing – at the end of the film – and the court case, in which we’re fed information about the brutal nature of Bundy’s crimes, doesn’t begin until halfway through the movie.
Instead, we watch events unfurl as Kloepfer sees things, including a heart-warming montage of Bundy, Kloepfer and her young daughter cleverly interspersed with news stories of missing young women. Both Efron and Collins are exceptional in their roles, as is an unrecognisable Kaya Scodelario from Skins as Carol Ann Boone, Bundy’s former co-worker and fervent defendant.
Not only did Bundy have the audacity to propose to Boone during a court hearing, but the archetypal nepotist also defended himself in court. It led Judge Edward D. Cowart, played by John Malkovich, to remark “you would’ve made a good lawyer…but you went another way”.
People might be up in arms about the movie, arguing it glamorises Bundy, but I wonder how many have made this assumption without watching the film.
Berlinger doesn’t set out to glorify or answer questions about the serial killer but highlight the duplicitous nature of this master manipulator who used everyone for his own sadistic gain.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is released in cinemas and on Sky Cinema on Friday 3rd May.
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