Let’s get a few things straight before I launch into Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. I am probably the biggest target audience for this movie, a card carrying murderino with a copy of The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule in need of duct tape triage. I watched Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes twice. I know more than your average bear about Ted Bundy.
He’s the very picture of a monster. While the scope of his crimes is the true horror of the story, what I find most frightening is how tightly screwed on Bundy’s human mask was. A sexual sadist, sociopath, and one of the most prolific serial killers in modern history, Ted Bundy was also a father figure, law student, suicide prevention hotline volunteer, and world class charmer. He was also a monster. Period. Anyone who wants to debate that fact can meet me out back.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile aims to depict the Ted Bundy (ably played by Zac Efron) known by Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins) and is based on her memoir, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy. The movie begins as a love story – Liz and Ted meet at a bar in 1969. She’s a single mother, he’s a handsome student, and their eyes lock as “Do You Believe in Magic?” plays on the jukebox. Liz invites him home, where they do nothing but cuddle all night long, and the next morning, Ted’s making breakfast for her and her young daughter, complete with apron.
As an introduction to what we know as a monster, it’s jarring and was my first clue that this wasn’t going to be a straight biopic of Bundy. What proceeds is a series of scenes that could be snapshots from anyone’s early seventies childhood: birthday parties, bicycle riding lessons, questionable facial hair, the works. Interspersed with these idyllic scenes are news reports regarding the early Bundy murders in the Pacific Northwest, Colorado, and Utah. We knowing viewers are aware that the doting father shown in these home movies is the perpetrator of these crimes and when Bundy is arrested during a traffic stop in Utah, we know the story is only just beginning.
The story, of course, is one of various escapes and trials, ending with a killing spree at Florida State University’s Chi Omega sorority house and Bundy’s subsequent trials for the murders of Margaret Bowman and Lisa Levy, as well as the attempted murders of Kathy Kleiner, Karen Chandler, and Cheryl Thomas. These courtroom scenes are by far the best of the film, allowing Efron to stretch himself as a rapidly unwinding Bundy and giving John Malkovich and Jim Parsons some delicious scenery to chew on.
What I had to constantly remind myself throughout the movie is that this all happened. Bundy was trusted enough by the police to be left alone during recess, leading to his first escape from custody. He did defend himself in court, so convinced was he of his legal prowess. His indictment for murder did take place in front of the press, as footage presented during the end credits shows. He did propose to Carole Ann Boone while she was testifying, and they were legally married during the trial due to Florida law. The events depicted are just wild enough to make us forget, for a moment, that these were real moments – that this was a real man.
I was very much on board with the casting of Zac Efron as Bundy when it was first announced, if only because I wanted to see what Troy Bolton could do with a meaty part. He captures the swaggering charm of Bundy, as well as the dead eyed desperation that slowly takes over him as the film progresses. It’s a good performance, if one that feels eerily familiar – that of a handsome, privileged man convinced of his innocence and unable to accept the consequences of his heinous actions.
Lily Collins as Liz Kloepfer never feels fully developed in a movie purporting to be from her perspective and the final confrontation between Bundy and Liz falls flat and fails to provide the closure it wants to for the audience. Kaya Scoderlario’s Carole Ann Boone comes off as a stand-by-your-man groupie and, again, never feels fully developed. She’s here to be the flip side of Liz, the one who stood by Bundy, married Bundy, and bore his child, winding up with nothing in the end (as a very overdone shot of her sitting alone in an empty courtroom screams at us).
My problem with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is simple. The victims do not have a voice. Carol DaRonch, who was kidnapped by Bundy in Utah, is depicted during his trial for said kidnapping but this is the extent of it. They exist in the film as names and names alone – after a short Bundy-centric epilogue, the named victims are listed before the film quickly returns its focus to Bundy, with the use of archival footage rolling alongside the end credits. It’s not right. It’s not fair. It’s not right that these women with lives and personalities and futures had those things taken away from them by a monster, only the be portrayed as afterthoughts in his biopic. As the audience, we never see Bundy as violent or even guilty until the end of the film. This comes far too late, allowing the audience to ponder Bundy’s innocence for too long, wondering if maybe, just maybe, this handsome charming man wasn’t guilty after all.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is a competent movie. It’s fine, though I will say that I expected better music. It shows us how we can perhaps never truly know the ones we allow closest to us, that monsters do not always appear to us with crazed eyes and brandishing knives. It reminds us that monsters are not always who we expect, that some people wear their masks so well we can never be sure of who they truly are.
Sometimes, monsters make breakfast in the morning.