Zac Efron steals the show as serial killer Ted Bundy, and that’s the problem.
Written by Michael Werwie and directed by Joe Berlinger, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) is based on the memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall. While ostensibly about Ted Bundy’s relationship with his longtime girlfriend, whose call to the police eventually led to his capture, the film focuses too much on Bundy’s dark charisma and courtroom antics.
The film opens at a bar in Seattle in 1969, where single mother Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins) meets handsome Theodore “Ted” Bundy (Zac Efron) for the first time, and the audience is mercifully spared the usual nods to 1960s counter-culture. Ted gets along well with her daughter, Molly, and seems to embrace the fatherly role. Things turn dark, however, when Ted is arrested at a traffic stop in 1975 and charged with kidnapping Carol Daronch (Grace Victoria Cox).
Though conflicted, and despite the protestations of her best friend, Joanna (Angela Sarafyan), Elizabeth is in denial that Ted could have committed the horrible acts of which he’s suspected. She grows increasingly distant as Ted’s legal troubles multiply, and he is accused of multiple murders. In prison, Ted rekindles an old flame with Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), while trying desperately to keep Elizabeth’s affection. Can Elizabeth break this destructive emotional bond and move on with her life?
Cameos include John Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart and Metallica vocalist and guitarist James Hetfield as Officer Bob Hayward. Unlike previous Bundy films, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile focuses more on the psychological toll and courtroom drama than the actual murders. It reenacts scenes from real interviews and news broadcasts in docudrama style.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile closely follows real events. Theodore Robert Bundy (1946-1989) was an American serial killer who maintained his innocence right up to a few years before his execution in the Florida electric chair. He eventually confessed to killing 30 young women in seven states between 1974 and 1978. His charisma, clean-cut appearance, and escape attempts made him a media sensation.
In a sense, Zac Efron was the perfect actor to play this role. A conventional bro, disarmingly handsome, with a boyish demeanor, Efron basically becomes Ted Bundy. It’s easy to see why women trusted him and why he passed under the radar for so long. He simply didn’t fit the image of what most people thought a killer looked like. But Efron’s performance is also the main problem. It distracts from what this film is supposed to be about.
Although I haven’t read Elizabeth Kendall’s memoir, I’m guessing she didn’t primarily focus on Ted Bundy, his trial, and his bizarre celebrity status. I’m guessing she focused on her own experiences, which is what this film should have done. Instead, Elizabeth’s character becomes a melancholic shadow passively observing events.
Like Netflix’s recent film The Highwaymen (2019), which chose to tell the story of outlaws Bonnie and Clyde from the perspective of the lawmen who hunted them down, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile should have told this story entirely from Elizabeth Kendall’s perspective. Bundy should have been a specter haunting Elizabeth as she tried to move on with her life.
But the filmmakers couldn’t help themselves when it came to giving Zac Efron maximum screen time. What results is a macabre focus on Bundy’s attempts to manipulate everyone around him, from his personal life to the courtroom. As a result, critics and audiences have given this film mixed reviews, and I have to agree. The filmmakers just weren’t willing to depart from a typical true crime narrative.