Seemingly out of nowhere, there's been a resurgence and fascination over infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. And Netflix has been primarily responsible for bringing new Bundy-related content to the masses. This started with the docu-series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, but become more noticeable when the streaming service also acquired the distribution rights to the new drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile stars the always shirtless Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, and was at the center of some controversy long before it was made available to the masses. But now the movie is available for streaming on Netflix, so the public can judge Efron's run as the serial killer themselves. That's just what critics have done, and the movie's been getting a mixed bag of reviews.
Scenes like these strike an unfortunate comedic note that undercuts the seriousness of Berlinger’s point: that devils may come disguised as angels. In documentaries like his stunning Paradise Lost trilogy, he has repeatedly interrogated our flawed ability to accurately identify monsters, chipping away at our biases to expose their fragility. Yet while Bundy’s well-documented charisma is on full blast here, we only fleetingly feel its chill. And by leaving most of his heinous acts off screen, Berlinger (who also has a Bundy documentary, Conversations With a Killer, on Netflix) is apparently relying on unwitting audiences being as devastated by his guilt as poor Liz.
But not all of the film's reviews fares quite so poorly, as NPR's Andrew Lapin praising the performance, and duality of Ted Bundy's charm and insidious truth. He said:
But Extremely Wicked is doing something clever nonetheless, maybe best exemplified by a scene of Bundy escaping the courthouse in broad daylight. It's shot with a boisterous kind of thrill, like the famous scene of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train where we actually root for the evil psychopath to pull a cigarette lighter out of a storm drain. Perspective can be a slippery thing, and hindsight will not save us. Is that guy you see onscreen good or bad, if all you see is him, and not the horrible things you know he has done?
The duality of Ted Bundy's charm in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile does seem to be a point of contention for some critics. IGN's Rafael Motamayor thought that not focusing on his mental issues and serial killer ways was a misstep, saying:
The filmmakers clearly attempted to portray Ted Bundy in the way Liz and the rest of the world saw him-- in the way he fooled everyone. Unfortunately, leaving the condemnation of his character to an undertone that we're meant to guess at doesn't effectively portray the twisted juxtaposition of a charming, but clearly homicidal man. During its first half, the film seems particularly interested in exploring the idea that Ted was actually innocent all along -- that he was framed for his crimes. It's a bold choice, and one that has to be navigated elegantly. But the script doesn't give nearly enough focus to the women Bundy fooled to justify this particular direction, nor does it give closure to Liz's narrative, which keeps her in the dark for the entire film. This exploration ends right as we begin to get close to any hint of character growth.
This issue seem to be a common criticism with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and is one shared by Rolling Stone's Peter Travers. He also took umbrage with Bundy's real side being largely absent, and being forced to share the perspective of his wife Elizabeth and the country at the time of Bundy's trial.
So why doesn’t the movie work, despite Efron giving it his all and then some? It’s one thing for Elizabeth to show a blind eye to the real Bundy. It’s another to ask audiences to share her delusion. The film describes Bundy’s violent acts, but never truly depicts them. In one scene, a visit to the pound, a dog shrinks in horror in the presence of Bundy. What took Elizabeth so long? There are psychological depths the film should be plumbing, but they go unexplored.
While there are some critics who had an issue with the perspective shown in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, Vulture's Emily Yoshida believes the movie is lacking any point of view at all. She wrote:
Perspective is an issue that dogs Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, even more so than its ungainly title. The narrative feature from veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger seems as though it’s setting out to be the story of serial killer Ted Bundy told through the eyes of his girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins.) It’s a good premise, and an interesting idea to delve into the “charming sociopath” profile that Bundy exemplified through the eyes of the person who was perhaps most charmed. But Berlinger’s film gets sucked into the gravity of sensational events that are already a matter of public record, and spends so much time meticulously recreating them that the perspective is diluted. It isn’t long before the film seems to lose any perspective at all.
In perhaps the most inspired casting choice of the year, the onetime teen heartthrob is taking on serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile – yes, the same monster who savagely killed at least 30 young women in a span of 10 years. It’s easy to think Efron is playing against type, but not really: Bundy, in fact, is still notorious 30 years after his death-by-electric chair because he presented himself as a good-looking and well-spoken charmer. Efron takes the opportunity and runs with it. He’s never been better.
You can judge for yourself, as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is now streaming on Netflix. In the meantime, be sure to check out our 2019 release list to plan your next trip to the movies.