To its substantial credit, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile—Netflix’s new movie about Seattle-grown killer Ted Bundy—avoids nearly all gratuitous violence, torture, and brutality, the sort of stuff that in so many serial killer movies feels less horrific than fetishistic. Sadly, that’s the major thing working to its credit.
The blatant qualm is that Zac Efron, who recently starred in Baywatch, plays Bundy. Efron is actually passable. He can muster some of Bundy’s charisma, though their particular charismas are not especially aligned. Bundy was a politician; Efron is a golden retriever. And he doesn’t have the dexterity to take the character beyond charming murderer. He also causes some, presumably unintentional, meta-comedy. When he’s revealed early on, leering across a University District bar, it feels like the beginning of an SNL sketch.
But the movie might have overcome that—could have actually used his idealized star qualities—if not for its more fundamental flaw. “A chronicle of the crimes of Ted Bundy from the perspective of Liz, his longtime girlfriend, who refused to believe the truth about him for years,” reads a Netflix description. Elizabeth Kloepfer (Liz) dated Bundy on and off from 1969 through his first arrest in 1975. In 1974 she tipped police off about him multiple times, based on a police sketch and that he drove a VW Bug, but since many women were calling in tips about their partners, Seattle police didn’t pursue it. At one point, he tried to kill her by filling her apartment with smoke (she didn’t realize until later that this was a murder attempt). Nevertheless, she felt loved by him, even after the arrest. She attended his 1976 hearing and wept.
The problem: Extremely Wicked is not, in any meaningful way, from Liz’s perspective. It begins there, but once Bundy is imprisoned early on it’s also the Efron show, an overview court procedural about Bundy’s multistate murder trials. Director Joe Berlinger works in stylish sequences, set to some fine 1970s rock, of Bundy’s multiple prison breaks. He sensationalizes the already bonkers court scenes in which Bundy fired his lawyer during a hearing, acted as his own defense, and married himself to his new lover while she was on the witness bench.
In fact, to even find out that Bundy tried to kill Kloepfer or that she tipped off the police multiple times, you’d have to read her 1981 memoir (or this Vanity Fair article). Instead Kloepfer’s story is told in quick cliched strokes. She develops a drinking problem that’s hardly addressed (eventually, she throws away liquor bottles!). She watches the trials on TV; she looks distraught. Lily Collins (who also stars in Tolkien, out later this week) is perfectly decent in the part, but she doesn’t have much to do with it since her character isn’t developed beyond Woman Who’s Increasingly Sure Her Boyfriend Is a Mass Murderer.
This is all the worse since it comes only months after Berlinger’s four-part Netflix documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. That series has its own problems. Presumably since much of the early episodes rely on audio recordings of Bundy, Berlinger makes ample use of pseudo-subliminal montages, cutting together scantily clad women and sunlight lancing through dark woods. Despite that, it’s a good overview of the Bundy story, if, like me going in, you don’t know much about him.
It also illuminates how superficial Extremely Wicked is. I’d still like to see a movie from Kloepfer’s perspective, a sort of real life Rosemary’s Baby, dissecting the colossal fear and self-doubt she must have gone through to decipher whether she was actually sleeping with the devil—all the more compelling since many others had the same fears. Instead we’re left with a needless movie in which Zac Efron gets to play psychopathic retro dress up.