For as long as I can remember, I have been morbidly obsessed with serial killers. The thing about being a true crime fanatic is that the worse the crimes are, the more you are drawn to their details, and in the world of serial killings it doesn’t get much worse than Ted Bundy. The notorious killer of women may have been executed more than thirty years ago at this point, but people are still as sinisterly fascinated by his exploits now as they were during his infamous trial. What would this new movie bring to the canon of previous Bundy related media?
Named after the description of his crimes given by the judge who sentenced him to death, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile tells a portion of the story of serial killer Ted Bundy (Zac Efron), specifically the run up to and events of the trial that finally sent him to the electric chair. Largely presented through the perspective of his girlfriend/ex-girlfriend at the time Liz Kendall (Lily Collins), the narrative begins in 1969 when the two meet and start to raise her young daughter together, moving in to the 1970s when Bundy finds himself on the police radar that eventually leads to a string of charges and heinous crime revelations in multiple states.
Here’s the thing about this movie. On the face of it, it is a well made, well acted crime drama, but it does feel like it is stuck with a weird sort of double edged problem. I would say that in order to get the most out of the film, you need to have previous knowledge of the Ted Bundy story, but at the same time, once you do go in with that existing knowledge, what unfolds on the screen comes across as fairly basic and expected. If you, like me, are one of the millions of people who devoured the recent three part Netflix documentary series Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, then nothing in this picture is going to feel revelatory or newly engaging.
The film is deliberately restrained in its use of violence and explicit murder details in order to reinforce the perspective of the unknowing and uninformed Liz. Compared to the numerous documentaries that love to lay it all out for the disgust of the viewers, Extremely Wicked invites the audience to see things from the other side of the fence, as it were. Fresh viewers know just as much about Ted’s alleged crimes as his girlfriend, and depending on your own knowledge of the history of the case, this is either an immersive, tantalising journey, or one that you wish was slightly more filled out to include the juicy parts.
This certainly isn’t a true crime film that is going to reveal new secrets and scandals in the Ted Bundy legend, but it is an interesting angle to explore. A lot of attention is rightly paid in the media to Bundy’s murder victims, but Liz was one of the victims too, she just happened to be lucky enough not to be murdered by her serial killer boyfriend. Even after the truth is revealed, she still finds herself helplessly under his spell. It’s a testament to the tentacles of trauma that a man like that can spread, both for the dead and for the living.
The defining characteristic of Ted Bundy, the thing that caused such a phenomenon at the time and still does to this day, was his exceeding goods looks, charm and charisma. In that sense, Zac Efron is the perfect casting for the role. Of course, there is a little bit of shock value in seeing one of America’s sweethearts playing one of America’s monsters, but that’s the point isn’t it? The most disturbed minds can rest behind the most beautiful faces. I’m no real connoisseur of his work, but this has to be the most dramatically impressive role of Efron’s career to date. He was suitably charismatic, arrogant, unabashed and succeeded in displaying that slight darkness behind the eyes that is so chilling when apparent.
Lily Collins gives a desperately fragile and shell shocked performance as Liz, a woman having to come to terms with that fact that such thick wool was pulled over her eyes for such a long time. Viewers have the benefit of hindsight, Liz did not, and Collins does a really great job of staying true to the feelings and emotions of any given moment in time. Another significant female role is that of Carole Anne Boone, played by Kaya Scodelario. Carole is a peculiar footnote in the Ted Bundy tale, coming to his aid during his trial, becoming his lover, supporting him unreservedly, even giving birth to his child after a clandestine conjugal visit during his trial, not to mention legally marrying him whilst on the witness stand. Scodelario brings the right amount of instability and insecurity to a character who clearly had their own personal situations to deal with, and alongside being a very strange and effective counter character to Collins’ Liz, she is also shown to be yet another living victim of this highly manipulative, calculating man.
Overall, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile is a solid but not remarkable true crime drama, one filled a handful of really good performances, but also one that doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the table in terms of the Ted Bundy mythology. If you want the full gory story, opt for a documentary instead, but if you are in thee mood for something a little more contemplative with a different perspective point, then this can make for an enjoyable watch.