Why does Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, starring Zac Efron as the notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, exist?
I wish I could tell you. Director Joe Berlinger is clearly fascinated with Bundy, who brutalized at least 30 young women in the 1970s (prior to his execution in 1989, Bundy confessed to kidnapping, raping, and murdering many of his victims, the true number of which is unknown). In addition to this feature, Berlinger directed Netflix’s four-part documentary series Conversations With a Killer, which also centers on Bundy and heavily relies on recorded interviews he gave during his imprisonment in the 1980s.
Netflix is streaming both the documentary series and the feature film, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. That’s a lot of time to spend on any subject, let alone someone whose story is as well-known and gruesome as Bundy’s.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile draws its title from the judge’s pronouncement when sentencing Bundy in 1979 for the murders of several young women — though it’s worth noting the same judge also said, in the same pronouncement, that Bundy was a promising young man who would have been a great lawyer.
At times, it seems like that may be the movie’s view, too. Extremely Wicked doesn’t provide any additional insights; Bundy got away with a lot because he was handsome and charming. The women who loved him just couldn’t believe he would do the horrifying things he was accused of. Not Ted! But they were so wrong!
And ... that’s it. That’s the movie. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is morally wrongheaded — more on that below — but it’s also just so profoundly lacking in any insight that it’s hard to believe it was greenlit in an era like ours. Today’s popular culture is steeped in wildly popular true crime podcasts and documentaries, the best of which also dissect their subject matter and attempt to draw conclusions about its larger cultural significance. There are plenty of ways the well-worn story of Ted Bundy could be retold with purpose and intelligence. Extremely Wicked is not it.
But several aspects of Ted Bundy’s story could have made for an insightful film and a much better drama. Here are three angles the film could have used that would have made it more worthwhile.
Option 1: An examination of young women’s fascination with serial killers
Bundy’s 1979 trial was the first nationally televised trial in US history, and young women showed up in droves to watch. This was, objectively, very strange, since Bundy was charged with raping and murdering two young women at the Chi Omega sorority house at Florida State University, attacking two more, and then attacking a young women nearby after he left.
But young women were drawn to him anyhow — not because they believed he was innocent but because they found him attractive and his misogynist crimes fascinating. Bundy was educated and good-looking. That’s just not the usual profile of a murderer, or at least it wasn’t in 1979.
While in police custody, Bundy received fan mail, nude pictures, and marriage proposals. Of the women who flocked to his trial, some even dressed up as his victims, who all fit a similar physical profile: long hair parted in the middle, wearing hoop earrings.
In a couple of scenes, Extremely Wicked touches on this morbid and disturbing fascination, with women saying they’re not sure why they’re drawn to Bundy but that he doesn’t look like the kind of person who could have committed such terrible crimes. One of them, an old acquaintance of Bundy’s named Carole Ann Boone (played by Kaya Scodelario), moved across the country to Florida to be near him during the trial, married him while she was on the stand serving as a character witness (the wedding was possible via a strange legal loophole), and bore his child, all of which the film depicts.
And yet Extremely Wicked rapidly pivots away from the idea of a group delusion, though you can see Bundy’s “groupies” seated in the courtroom at times. That’s a huge missed opportunity: There’s a long history of women who are attracted to and fascinated by serial killers, a phenomenon that seems worth revisiting and evaluating against the more recent trend of podcasts like My Favorite Murder and its largely female fan base, who call themselves “Murderinos.” How groupies and Murderinos are related — or aren’t — is a matter that’s still mystifying to many, and Extremely Wicked had an opportunity to dig into the phenomenon.
But it didn’t take that opportunity; instead, the movie gives into its own fascination with Bundy himself. And that helps explain why it perhaps didn’t handle the story’s potential in another way.
Option 2: An indictment of the “celebrification” of serial killers
Pop culture has always been interested in serial killers, frequently turning them into celebrities. The stories that result have the potential to probe psychology (Dexter) or the nature of evil (Hannibal).
But sometimes they’re just stories about men (usually) who killed women (usually), and there’s a very fine line between retelling their stories and glamorizing them. As Vox’s true crime expert Aja Romano wrote in reviewing Berlinger’s documentary series, many of today’s true crime storytellers have made it their mission to center their work on the victims, telling the rich, personal stories of those who were affected and building them out as real humans, rather than “just” victims.
The documentary fails to do this, however; Romano describes it as a “perfectly serviceable” introduction to the details of Bundy’s crimes that “adds little to the conversation at all” — and that’s an apt description of Extremely Wicked as well. We learn almost nothing about Bundy’s victims; they fade into a sea of pretty young women who fell prey to a dynamic and charismatic killer.
That’s bad in a documentary; the effect is to rob women of their dignity in a way that’s not wholly unlike what Bundy wanted to do in the first place. But it may be even worse in a feature film like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, where a handsome movie star plays Bundy. The camera constantly pulls in close to Efron’s face, lingering on his portrayal of Bundy when he’s most sympathetic and funny and kind, rather than dwelling on his truly brutal moments. You know he’s evil, but the camera sure doesn’t.
By contrast, nearly all the women in the film are either silly, foolish caricatures or victims. Carole Ann Boone is played, more or less, as a duped idiot. The story arc tells us that Bundy is bad, but the way the movie is crafted clearly admires its clever central figure, played by a good-looking A-lister. Ultimately, a cruel man who didn’t think twice about the humanity of the women he murdered still gets center stage.
Option 3: A sympathetic portrait of a woman who truly loved Bundy
I don’t really think Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile was meant to center on Ted Bundy. It starts out as a movie about Elizabeth Kendall, or Liz, (played by Lily Collins), an ex-girlfriend of Bundy’s whose 1981 book The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy serves as the film’s source material.
Kendall (who published The Phantom Prince under a pseudonym, instead of her real name, Elizabeth Kloepfer) was a single mother when she met Bundy in 1969, and he swept her off her feet: a perfect gentleman, eventually a law student, who was caring toward her and her daughter as the two hatched plans for their future lives together.
And Liz is the movie’s framing device. She’s there at the beginning, and she’s there at the end, too, trying to get Ted to tell her the truth even after he’s been sentenced to Death Row and she’s moved on with her life.
But Extremely Wicked obviously doesn’t find Liz very interesting. It doesn’t concern itself with telling us anything about her life before Ted. We know next to nothing about her apart from him. She disappears for whole sections of the film, and for a vast stretch in the middle she’s just withering away to nothing, watching the televised trial, waiting by the phone. At one point, she tells a friend that when he isn’t with her, she feels like she’s nothing — and it sure seems as though Extremely Wicked agrees.
Yet in defending the film against allegations that it “glamorizes” Bundy, Berlinger has said that it’s really meant to be a cautionary tale about how easy it is to be taken in by someone like Bundy, how a serial killer could be handsome and charming and well-educated.
“If you actually watch the movie, the last thing we’re doing is glorifying him,” Berlinger claimed in an interview with Bustle. “He gets his due at the end, but we’re portraying the experience of how one becomes a victim to that kind of psychopathic seduction.”
It’s a nice thought, but that’s not what the film does. Liz’s experience isn’t the same as ours out in the audience — we know who this guy is from the start — and so we’re just watching a duped woman get more duped. She’s seduced by Bundy’s kindness and what seems, at times, like genuine love for her. We have no more insight at the end of the film than we did at the beginning into his methods, or whether he loved her, or whether he was capable of loving her at all.
At most, we learn that it really, really sucks when your handsome and attentive fiancé turns out to be the century’s most famous and heinous serial killer.
In truth, I think we’d be fine as a culture if we never made another movie about Ted Bundy. There are other stories to tell, other figures to probe for insight into American culture, other victims’ stories to tell. But if you’re going to make a movie that tries to tell such a famous story anew, you’ve got to justify that movie’s existence. And Extremely Wicked gives off the distinct impression that it finds Bundy far more fascinating than anyone who suffered at his hands.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile opens in select theaters and on Netflix on May 3.