In the documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, its self-deceiving and deceptive subject declares, “It wasn’t that I disliked women or were afraid of them. It was just that I didn’t seem to have an inkling as to what to do about them.”
Actually, Ted Bundy did know what to do about women. In the 1970s, Bundy killed, raped and injured at least 30 women. Although the American serial killer was executed in 1989, his death spree continues to inspire a seemingly endless stream of documentaries and movies.
The films include Ted Bundy (2002) and Bundy: An American Icon (2008). The upcoming No Man of God (2021) fictionalises interviews between Bundy and a Federal Bureau of Investigation officer. These interviews form the core of Joe Berlinger’s Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019). The Netflix series is based on conversations between Bundy and a journalist as well as interviews with police officers, family members, friends and survivors of Bundy’s savagery.
Archival footage reveals the main reason for the gruesome fascination. The good-looking and charming Bundy didn’t fit the stereotype of the sexually repressed, unattractive and clinically insane serial killer. Bundy was as functional as he was effective. He was in a series of relationships even as he committed his crimes.
Bundy escaped prison a couple of times, argued in his defence at his televised trial in the 1980s, and revelled in the attentions of the women who thronged the courthouse where his crimes were being detailed. One of these women, Elizabeth Kendall, with whom Bundy fathered a child while on death row, wrote the memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.
The book serves as the foundation for Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The 2019 movie, which also draws on Berlinger’s series for Netflix, is available on BookMyShow Stream.
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Extremely Wicked… is aimed at viewers who haven’t watched the four-episode Conversations with a Killer. The movie sheathes its horrors, treating Bundy as a character separate from the person accused of abducting and killing several women.
Bundy (Zac Efron) is in a steady relationship with single mother Lisa (Kaya Scodelario). When Bundy is imprisoned on suspicion, Lisa simply cannot believe it. Michael Werwie’s screenplay suggests that we suspend judgement too.
The conceit depends entirely on Zac Efron’s portrayal of Bundy’s deadly suavity. The movie barely touches on the social currents of the 1970s that possibly provoked Bundy, including the feminist movement.
Instead, Berlinger opts for a character study. The seemingly lovesick Bundy’s increasingly desperate attempts to convince Lisa of his innocence reveal details of his complex personality. The mask slips in the numerous close-ups of Efron, who both resembles Bundy and is a more sexually appealing version of the psychopath.
Efron’s eyes shift ever so subtly from persuasion to steeliness. His tense body language betrays his inner rage. His handsome feature re-align themselves from smugness to contempt when the trial judge (John Malkovich) appears unconvinced. “You are not on spring break,” Judge Cowart reminds Bundy. The serial killer is undone by his vanity and tendency to play to the gallery, the movie suggests.
Lilly Collins plays the literally wide-eyed Elizabeth Kendall, whose faith in Bundy is unshaken by courtroom testimony. The movie puts the onus on the women to shake off the hold Bundy had over them in real life. His rampant misogyny is absent from the narrative, which even manages to hint at admiration for this sinister stud. Like Conversations with a Killer, the movie is unable to provide a compelling explanation for Bundy’s brutality. By shielding viewers from Bundy’s crimes in the interest of serving up a suspenseful thriller, the film dilutes the monstrosity of his actions.
We are left with Zac Efron’s uncanny imitation of Ted Bundy, a withering turn by John Malkovich, and a sweet cameo by Haley Joel Osment as Lisa’s new boyfriend. Even in the afterlife, the men hog the show, rather than the women who were slaughtered.