When Ted Bundy died in the electric chair 30 years ago in Florida, a witness to the execution — a prosecutor in the case of a 12-year-old girl Bundy murdered — told the New York Times: “He probably could have done anything he set his mind to do, but something happened to him and we still don’t know what it was.”
Three decades later, we still don’t, and the aptly named “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” doesn’t provide any new answers.
Instead, Joe Berlinger’s film, starring an impressively scary Zac Efron, tries with mixed success to address a different issue, namely how Bundy not only used his good looks and boyish demeanor to fool those closest to him, especially his longtime girlfriend, but how he managed to seduce some in the media and public — to the point where, revoltingly, he had actual groupies at his murder trial.
Berlinger’s film, based on Liz Kloepfer’s memoir “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy,” happens to have coincided this year with his own docuseries on Bundy, also on Netflix. It’s clear that the feature film benefits from a documentarian’s eye; in fact it’s the frequent snippets of real-life footage that give the movie some of its most interesting moments, and make for a chilling credits sequence in which we see Bundy in real-life scenes that we’ve just watched Efron perform.
By telling the story from the perspective of Kloepfer, who for years refused to believe that her handsome, law-student boyfriend could be a savage killer, Berlinger necessarily has to refrain from depicting Bundy’s crimes, so that perhaps we can fall under the same spell she does. We don’t witness his sickening violence until the film is nearly over.
The problem is that by then, the approach is distracting. We all know what Bundy did — he confessed to some 30 murders right before his death, blaming pornography for his demented fantasies, and is believed to have committed many more. Yes, Berlinger is interested in telling us more about Bundy the serial deceiver than Bundy the serial killer. But we don’t learn much revealing about the deception, either. Except that women might be drawn to a guy who looks like, well, Zac Efron.
Speaking of Efron: The actor, with his ultra-clean “High School Musical” image still engraved in our pop-culture memories, might seem a counter-intuitive choice, but some of his later films in which he’s pure abs and sexy smiles, in the frat house or on the beach, are more apt. The actor makes a fine career leap into the dark side here, acquitting himself nicely in a role that could have veered into caricature.
Lily Collins, too, gives a sensitive and sympathetic turn as Liz, the vulnerable single mom who fell in love with Bundy and almost married him. But the actor who steals the show here is the dry and witty John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart, who uttered the words “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile” in describing the crimes for which he was sentencing Bundy to death — but also was disturbingly friendly, calling him a “bright young man” and promising lawyer, and telling him to “take care of yourself.”
By this time, the film has become a courtroom drama, and we’ve almost forgotten about Liz. But it starts out as the story of a lonely young woman who meets a flirtatious guy in a bar. She thinks he may run away when he sees she’s got a toddler daughter, but he stays — and makes breakfast.
Meanwhile, news reports are surfacing of terrible crimes. We toggle between sweet and sexy domestic scenes and sobering news footage. As events close in on Bundy, we see him make not one but two dramatic escapes from jail. Then comes his famous murder trial in front of TV cameras. In just one of its bizarre moments, Bundy asks his friend Carole Ann to marry him right there in the courtroom as she’s testifying on his behalf.
All these events are fascinating — but they’re public record. Suddenly our narrative film seems to lose its original focus and turn into a documentary — polished and absorbing, but telling us nothing new.
Some have argued that the film glorifies its subject. It doesn’t, really. But it doesn’t explain him, either. And that leads to another question, which is, if there’s nothing really new to say about Ted Bundy, need we be saying anything?
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for disturbing/violent content, some sexuality, nudity and language.” Running time: 110 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow Jocelyn Noveck on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/JocelynNoveckAP