Don’t you just love a sexy serial killer? Hollywood certainly does. Recent onscreen depictions have been accused of romanticising men who have committed atrocious crimes because the actors chosen to play them are significantly more attractive. For example, Ross Lynch, the teen heartthrob star of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, played serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer back in 2018; a man who brutally raped and murdered 17 men and boys from 1978 to 1991.
In the same year, former Glee star Darren Criss was cast as Andrew Cunanan, the spree killer who murdered five people during a three month period in 1997. Now it’s the turn of serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy to receive an aesthetic upgrade in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, directed by Joe Berlinger.
In many ways, choosing Zac Efron to play Bundy was a savvy casting choice. Bundy was notoriously charismatic, able to seduce both his victims and the media when his case went to trial. Efron’s good looks and athletic physique lend well to the over-exaggeration of Bundy’s charm. And yet, there’s just something about the film that doesn’t quite sit right. It’s just a little too breezy, too stylish and too dreamy for its own good.
The film begins by depicting the official surface of Bundy’s life; the smart and eager law student dating single mum Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins), upon whose memoir the book is based. Their life gets complicated when Bundy is arrested for attempted kidnapping, and the charges get all the more serious as new evidence emerges linking Bundy to the heinous crimes we all now know he committed. The rest of the film centres on Bundy’s trial, sensationalised by the media and fuelled by Bundy’s monstrous vanity. Only at the very end – albeit briefly – does the film acknowledge Bundy’s crimes and even then the camera seems a little too preoccupied with framing Efron’s baby blues.
Efron gives a solid performance, though one that’s always better when he’s working from the direct source material, emulating recorded television footage and interviews. Collins, who plays Kendall, does a great job of sinking into the background, blandly phoning in her performance in what could have been a much meatier role.
Having already made the Netflix documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Berlinger’s fascination with Bundy is obvious. Therefore, I do wonder whether Berlinger’s interest may have also led him to be swayed by Bundy’s charisma, as the film often leans a little close to a homage.
Much has been made of the fact that this film does not glamorise the life and actions of serial killer Ted Bundy. Many have praised the subtle ways in which the film sidesteps delving too deeply into the atrocious crimes committed by him, instead choosing to focus on the women he seduced into his world that fell for him hook, line and sinker.
The truth is, the film doesn’t do enough not to glamorise Bundy’s life. Through Efron’s casting, as solid as the actor’s performance may be, Bundy is sexualised and romanticised. The film plays into Bundy’s own vision of himself; smart, quick-witted, charming. So effective is the film in its popularisation of Bundy, that if you search for articles relating to Ted Bundy on the Cosmopolitan magazine website, you’ll be greeted with taglines such as ‘admit it, you’re down a Zac Efron-induced Ted Bundy rabbit hole.’ Because men who brutally rape and murder women are apparently back in fashion.
Little is made of Judge Edward Cowart’s comments who, when sentencing Bundy, expressed his deep regret at the ‘waste of humanity’ before him, noting that Bundy would have made an excellent lawyer and the pride he would have felt to have worked beside him. There’s no mention of the countless women who were brutally murdered and their wasted potential.
Sadly, this film is just one in a thousand other films that portray men who commit horrific crimes as enigmatic individuals full of charisma and wholly deserving of our undivided attention, and the victims of these crimes as expendable and invisible.