Released: 3rd May
Seen: 4th May
Even though we don’t like to admit it, on some level our society has always had a fascination with serial killers. There’s a reason why we have so many crime re-enactment shows, why there are magazines sold that talk about brutal crimes, movie monsters are inspired by some of the most evil people to have roamed this earth. One of the most infamous men to have ever disgraced the earth with his existence was Theodore Robert Bundy AKA Ted Bundy, a vile murderer who brutalised over 30 women, performing acts so disgusting to all of them that it’s impossible to believe he was ever even remotely close to human. The story of his evil is so horrifically fascinating that it’s been the source of over half a dozen movies and documentaries, a recent Netflix series that became controversial almost instantly as it seemed to fail to actually offer any actual insight beyond what we already knew. Now we have a bright, glossy, star-studded film that tries to cram every strange and disturbing detail of the demonic bastard’s crimes into 108 minutes that was directed by the same man who created the aforementioned Netflix series… and god damn do I mean it when I say they just crammed it in there.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile plays like a ‘Best Of’ version of the telling of Ted Bundy’s (Zac Efron) life from the moment he meets a young woman named Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) in a bar. The two hit it off immediately and begin a relationship that’s soon derailed when Ted gets arrested for suspicion of kidnapping and aggravated assault. From there we witness the story of Ted Bundy play out, from his multiple successful escapes to his court trial for the murders at the Chi Omega Sorority House. We witness him trying to get away with it, see his determination to break free from prison, and follow along with Liz’s slow realisation that she may have fallen in love with a murderer.
So, this might be one of the most controversial movies of the year just based on marketing alone. I was on Twitter when the trailer for this dropped and it was interesting to see how they seemed to be trying to play this off almost like some kind of romantic drama. People were upset about how they made Ted attractive and charming, how wrong it was and… I mean, I get their concern but sadly, it’s how he was perceived at the time by more than just the media. He’s so horrific precisely because people would take one look at him and go “He just doesn’t look like the type to kill anybody”, there’s literally footage of young women stating exactly that sentence at his trial, possibly after they heard about Bundy leaving bite marks in the bodies of his victims. I get why it’s a problem, but it’s accurate… and Zac Efron plays it perfectly.
We’re going to get to this movie’s problems later but the thing about this film that works better than anyone could’ve expected is the amazing performance by Zac Efron. He plays every scene perfectly, charming on the surface but there is clearly something going on behind those eyes. We, the audience, know from the start of the movie that Ted is guilty as sin and is currently getting violently pitchforked in the pits of hell where he belongs and with that knowledge ahead of time you can see the gears working. You can see Ted trying to figure out what lie to tell next, it’s like second nature to him. The showboating, the calm smile, everything is so perfect… and then the mask slips. You can see it, and it’s brilliant. The reason Zac’s performance is great is that he is basically playing the charmer and the villain at the same time and you can see the moments when that mask slips and we can see the evil that’s been staring us in the face. It’s a performance that not only heavily relies on the talent of the actor in question but, in this case, relies on our expectations and Zac Efron is typically the guy you hire when you need the charming pretty face for people to fall in love with instantly so for them to get him to play one of the greatest monsters in history? It’s brilliant and he’s amazing, please play more villains Zac, you terrify me.
The film is genuinely lucky that it has such a terrifying lead because he’s doing most of the heavy lifting. Everything about this film is so rushed, we are just running along point by point and filled in on the stuff we never see. Granted, no one wants to see any of these crimes recreated because they are genuinely disturbing but it often just feels like they’re trying desperately to run through a checklist of key moments while also cutting back for scenes where Bundy is emotionally manipulative to a woman who clearly didn’t know just how monstrous he was. Doing a full history of Bundy’s crimes in a little under 2 hours is borderline impossible, they are so numerous that details are going to get lost in the shuffle. Because of that, we’re left with this problem where the film is trying to tell us that this man is a monster who has done horrific things, but it’s so focussed on showing the pain of the relationship between Bundy and Elizabeth that the details of what happened to the victims is left to news footage and lawyers to tell us about later on. The film is lucky that Zac is able to sell the idea that the charm is nothing more than a facade to get away with murder because if he wasn’t doing that, then they really could’ve screwed up since the text is almost trying to suggest some ambiguity.
Along with just rushing through, everything feels like it’s doing just enough to get by. There aren’t any really fascinating shots, no moments where the actual film is matching the main performance, it’s just flat. Replace the lead with any other actor, this is a movie of the week and it clearly wants to be more than that. The big scene at the end with Elizabeth and Ted is a great tense scene between two actors pulling each other up, it’s possibly the most intense scene in the movie where they actually did interesting things with framing by having the walls finally come in on Ted by literally having the frame get in so close you could see the whites of his eyes. It’s also one of maybe three times when they try something interesting with the framing or the visuals in general. I’m not asking much but if you’re going to do another movie about a serial killer who should just be a footnote in history by this point, could you at least make the film visually interesting for me? Hell, make the film look as interesting as your main performer who probably has a sore back now since he’s been carrying this whole damn film.
I completely understand if you have a problem with yet another story about another serial killer where the focus isn’t on the victims. I know I have that problem; it’s why I was genuinely happy when the movie showed the names of every one of the known victims at the end of the movie. For what it’s worth, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a good movie, it stumbles occasionally by trying to give some humanity to someone inhuman and by rushing to get to the end but it’s anchored by the best performance of Zac Efron’s career and some genuinely great moments that manage to just make it work.