There’s a daring concept behind this off-kilter Netflix movie about the kinder and gentler side of serial killer Ted Bundy that should have worked: How can a pretty face blind us to the demon lurking inside? Zac Efron perfectly embodies the hotness that drew women to law-student Bundy even after it became painfully obvious that this burglar, kidnapper, rapist, necrophile and mass murderer had strangled, bludgeoned and mutilated at least 30 women (there could be more) across seven states in the mid to late 1970s.
Enter the world of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a title taken from the words of Florida Judge Edward D. Cowart (a stellar John Malkovich) who sentenced Bundy to the electric chair for being all of those things. Bundy was executed on January 24, 1989. He was 42.
Director Joe Berlinger, a superb documentarian (the excellent Paradise Lost trilogy), could have gone several ways with this material. The method he chose, along with screenwriter Michael Werwie, was to see Bundy through the eyes of Elizabeth Kloepfer, referred to here as one of her pseudonyms, Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), the single mother he met in 1969 and loved with ardor and tenderness while moonlighting as a savage psychopath. In other words, we’re seeing Bundy as Elizabeth saw him, at least for a time, and as he preferred to see himself. That was the image Bundy presented at trial, wearing a suit with a jaunty bow tie, bantering with the judge, who called him pardner,” and flashing a smile meant to warm hearts. It’s bone-chilling.
So why doesn’t the movie work, despite Efron giving it his all and then some? It’s one thing for Elizabeth to show a blind eye to the real Bundy. It’s another to ask audiences to share her delusion. The film describes Bundy’s violent acts, but never truly depicts them. In one scene, a visit to the pound, a dog shrinks in horror in the presence of Bundy. What took Elizabeth so long? There are psychological depths the film should be plumbing, but they go unexplored. When Elizabeth finally came to her senses, Bundy took up with an old friend, Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario), who he managed to impregnate in prison and who gave him that same blind devotion Elizabeth once provided.
What motivated these women and for that matter Bundy himself? Extremely Wicked provides no answers. You can find more insights in Kendall’s memoir, The Phantom Prince, and in Berlinger’s Netflix doc, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Hearing Bundy’s actual voice, a blend of self-pity and self love, freezes the blood. Berlinger ends his film with clips of the real Bundy in action, speaking words that we heard Efron speak previously. Reality trumps recreation every time. In his second film as a feature director, following the mess that was Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, Berlinger loses his way in a game of let’s pretend that ends in a tangle of tonal shifts and missed opportunities.