Patience, they say, is a virtue and it’s one we would all do well to practise more often. Take the first trailer for the new Ted Bundy biopic, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile for example. Within minutes of its release the upcoming movie had us all on the defensive: it was, we resolved, just another exercise in the ongoing glamorisation of murderous men and dead women. Now, having seen the movie, I know we spoke far too soon. Because Extremely Wicked does not merely glamourise Ted Bundy. Rather, it does all the mental gymnastics necessary to make the killer look innocent.
As a brief reminder Ted Bundy was a (by most accounts) a good-looking, young law student who was eventually handed three death sentences for the murder of three women in Florida. Before he was sent to the electric chair in January 1989, he confessed to the murder of thirty women and experts believe he was responsible for the death of many more.
The film, according to director Joe Berlinger, is supposed to tell the story of Bundy’s rapes, murders, necrophilia and kidnaps from the perspective of his long-term girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins). It sounds like a pretty solid idea to begin with: who better to tell the story than the woman closest to Bundy for most of his life? That is, until you realise that Elizabeth had absolutely no idea about any of her boyfriend’s killings, and despite questioning him a number of times ultimately believes his innocence until the moment he is locked up. It is no surprise the audience are made to feel sorry for Bundy, we’re supposed to. But just because it’s an intentional device doesn’t mean it’s a good one.
None of the murders (except one, right at the end) are shown in the film, which would usually be a point of praise – though gruesome photographs of the murders flash up, without warning, at points during the film. Staying away from the horror porn genre is a good move for Extremely Wicked, but it’s one of the few compliments the directorial decisions can be given. Because the audience are coddled in scenes of Ted and Elizabeth’s home life (through her eyes, remember), the film encouraged laughter – and got it – every time he successfully got away with murder. In a film about a serial killer who used his looks and charm to murder, mutilate and rape at least 30 women, it jarred.
Efron and Berlinger laid bare their misunderstanding of what the movie’s depiction of Bundy means in an interview with The Guardian earlier this week. ‘We’re hyper-aware that no we’re not [glamorising him],’ exerted the actor after declaring that one of his motivations for embodying Bundy was a ‘psychotic’ woman. Most tellingly though, Efron argues that it’s just as hard to be a man in an untrustworthy world as it is a woman, claiming, ‘This is not a gender thing. This [story] in particular we told, but it goes completely both ways.’ It’s this very removal of a gender-specific view that makes Extremely Wicked live up to its name.
The casting of Zac Efron was a hotly contested decision – how are we supposed to believe the much-loved kid from High School Musical turned red carpet heartthrob could portray such a despicable man? The truth is that this is Efron’s greatest performance yet. Working with scenes that move too fast and a rather simplified version of a devastatingly complex man, he manages to draw up a sense of menace not offered by the filmmakers in most other ways. His co-stars, Lily Collins and Kaya Scodelario, are also saviours of Extremely Wicked but they are also given flat versions of women blinded by their love for a man they didn’t believe the evidence laid out before them. Not one character is interrogated enough, if at all.
Berlinger (who also directed the Netflix documentary series The Ted Bundy Tapes) had an opportunity to do something special with this movie. In a post-Serial world, the true crime as entertainment category is not only a much debated topic, but one ripe for cross-examination. Instead, Extremely Wicked does nothing more than add to the repugnant pile of films, TV shows, podcasts and books using real dead women as a minor plot point. (Notably, Berlinger dismissed claims that his poeticised depiction of Bundy risked glorification as “naive”.) Other upcoming movies look like they are about to bulk out that list too - Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood and The Haunting Of Sharon Tate starring Hilary Duff both use the murders by the Manson cult.
I said we should practice patience when it comes to tidbits of information and trailers, but it is wearing very thin. If the entertainment industry refuses to properly acknowledge the thirty - maybe more - women who suffered the wrath of Ted Bundy then the question is not how to tell the story, but why we need to keep telling it. Efron himself said it best when he told Sky News that ‘history must never be repeated’, and yet here we are. Laughing at it