By Libbie Nicklin
Popular culture today is fascinated with true crime, particularly the crimes of serial killers. To name a few: podcasts, YouTube channels, documentaries and films all dedicate their content to discussing serial killers and their crimes. Although they have committed heinous crimes, many seem to adore them, are intrigued by them and even treat them like celebrities.
A serial killer that charmed the American nation was Ted Bundy. Although he was confirmed to have kidnapped, raped and murdered at least 30 young women between 1974-1978, he had a fan base of women who attended his trial and left him love letters, nude photos and even marriage proposals. Some of them even dressed as his victims, questioning how such an attractive and charming man was responsible for such horrific crimes against women.
Although Bundy was sentenced to death and his crimes occurred over five decades ago, today’s popular culture is still very much enticed by him. He has been the subject of books, documentaries and I have even seen TikTok’s of women sharing their stories about how they nearly became his next victim! People just don’t seem to want to forget him, with new content constantly being created about him and his crimes. More recently though, Zac Efron became the embodiment of Bundy in Joe Berlinger’s movie ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’. The film got its title from Bundy’s Judge who referred to his crimes as such before sentencing him to the death penalty.
Even though Berlinger has claimed that the film intended to show how somebody can be ‘taken in’ by a serial killer, this film is definitely not without critique. I will therefore offer an opinion based review of the film, highlighting these failures and how a film about such a cruel and misogynistic man could have been improved.
The camera obsesses over Bundy:
While I understand Berlinger’s intentions, I believe the camera obsesses a little too much with Bundy. This is quite surprising since the film was said to be based on Bundy’s ex-girlfriend’s (Elizabeth) memoirs. The main premise I got from watching the film was that Bundy was a charming person, who was able to trick his victims and managed to escape the criminal justice system for many years due to this. Rather than making this a small aspect of the film, it centred around this and gave Bundy all of the attention.
For example, the camera pulls in close and lingers on Efron’s face when he’s most sympathetic and kind, rather than dwelling on his brutal and misogynistic moments. The camera shows him as being a good father to Elizabeth’s (Lily Collins) daughter, as an intellectual and promising law student, and as a generally charming and seemingly harmless man. In using such techniques though, the movie has crafted itself to admire its central figure. I felt as if I liked Bundy and almost hoped that he didn’t commit those crimes, even though I knew the outcome. The likability of the central figure definitely wasn’t helped by casting a good looking A-lister as Bundy.
It is clear that Berlinger is most fascinated with Bundy rather than those that suffered as a result of his actions. By obsessing over Bundy’s charisma and charm, Berlinger has ultimately glorified Bundy. This isn’t any different to how Bundy was glorified during his trial by the likes of the media and his fan base of supporters who pledged for his innocence. He was even referred to as a “promising man who would have made a great lawyer” by the judge. It seems as though this film has taken this view of the judge, despite getting its name from the negative description the judge gave him.
The victims are forgotten:
In obsessing over Bundy, the victims and survivors of his crimes were given very little screen time or recognition. By focusing on his charisma and charm, it can be interpreted that this makes it seem as if it's the victim's fault that they fell for and were tricked by him. This takes the focus and blame away from Bundy and his calculated and misogynistic crimes, and instead portrays the victim’s as naive and at fault. To me, it seems as if the film has completely forgotten or maybe even disregarded Bundy’s misogynistic motivation. He only targeted young women and women who he perceived to be attractive, and used his attractiveness and charm to trick his victims into helping or liking him. This is absolutely fundamental to his crimes and has sadly been skimmed over.
Similarly, Elizabeth was also portrayed to be at fault for not believing that Bundy committed these crimes until the end and for sticking by him. She also faded into the background of the film and we learn very little about her, making her not much different to the victims. As I mentioned, this film was said to be based on Elizabeth’s memoirs but as she pointed out herself, the film changed some key points. In the film she believed Bundy’s innocence till the end, but in reality she had found clues before he was arrested and even called the police in 1974 (the year Bundy’s killings began). Elizabeth was in fact aware and suspicious of Bundy but was instead portrayed as naive and oblivious.
This film suppresses the female voice, and the most crucial part and important part of his crimes. The victims are blamed and Elizabeth is not listened to despite opening up about a very traumatising experience. Bundy’s victims get a mere mention at the end of the movie, where their names are displayed on a black screen. As was so cleverly said by Vox, this film “strips the women of their dignity in a way that’s not wholly unlike what Bundy did”. The suffering caused was completely disregarded in this film, and has ultimately given Bundy the power that he wanted and got from killing these innocent women.
What more does it add?
Countless films, documentaries and YouTube videos have been made about Bundy, all offering their own perspective on him and his crimes. Berlinger even created a docuseries named ‘conversations with a killer’ which included exclusive audio recordings of Bundy made while he was on death row. So with all of this content created about Bundy, Extremely Wicked fails to provide the audience with any additional insights. Arguably, it can be said to add a different perspective, which Berlinger claimed was to show how someone can be ‘taken in’ by a serial killer. While I can see the direction in which this film intended to go, it has done more harm than good, especially regarding the victims.
The film itself seems to have been too enticed by Bundy, failing to listen to Elizabeth and her experiences with him, and it ultimately failed to provide its audience with information that cannot be found from a quick google search. Bundy has been dead for several decades now, meaning there is only so much we can learn about him from external sources. After all, Bundy wished to be obsessed over and this film certainly does that.
How the film could have been improved:
There are several angles that this film could have taken that would have added a meaningful contribution to the existing Bundy content.
The film could have taken a feminist approach by focusing on the misogynistic nature of his crimes. It could have done so by showing the fear and feelings of anxiety experienced by women during this time, knowing that there was a killer on the loose. Especially those that fit into the stereotype of his victims. As mentioned in my last blog, feminist horror and thriller films highlight the struggles women face. If it had taken the fear of crime approach it would have been relatable to many women’s fears and struggles, but it would have also cleverly done it through a case study of Bundy’s crimes.
The film had a lot of potential in being based off of Elizabeth’s memoirs. Rather than focusing primarily on Bundy, it could have focused on her perspective. This way the audience would have got an insight into what it was like to live with a serial killer. She is a very vital part of the story and deserves to have her story heard.
Finally, the film could have been approached by focusing on those that were fascinated with Bundy. This was such a unique part of Bundy’s case and especially during this period in time. In the film they are portrayed as obsessed fans, but it would have been interesting to hone in on why so many young women were fascinated with him. It would certainly speak to today’s culture too.
I can definitely understand the vision Berlinger had for ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’. The film certainly has elements of showing how one was taken in by Bundy but it is quite significant to silence his victims in a way that is not dissimilar to what he did. I just hope that if any more content is created about him that it focuses on the victims and survivors, and the misogyny that fuelled his crimes, and not his charming nature!
Britannica. (n.d.) Ted Bundy. Accessed at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ted-Bundy
IMDb. (2019) ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’. Accessed at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2481498/
Livingstone, J. (2019) ‘Why Are we Still Fascinated by Ted Bundy?’. The New Republic. Accessed at: https://newrepublic.com/article/152990/still-fascinated-ted-bundy
Preston, H. (2019) ‘‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ Fact v.Fiction: How Close Did Zac Efron’s Ted Bundy come to the Real Cold-Blooded Killer?’’. Newsweek. Accessed at: https://www.newsweek.com/extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-vile-fact-fiction-zac-efron-ted-bundy-1415452
Wilkinson, A. (2019) ‘The Ted Bundy movie starring Zac Efron sure does love Ted Bundy’, Vox. Accessed at: https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/2/5/18210945/ted-bundy-extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-vile-review-netflix