When Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and its cumbersome title were first announced, the Internet exploded with reactions, as it tends to do. Most of the online furor surrounded the decision to cast Zac Efron as serial killer Ted Bundy—it’s true that Bundy’s personality and looks were essential to his murderous repertoire, but some were worried that the casting of a known heartthrob would romanticize Bundy’s allure rather than analyze it. I reserved my judgment until I was able to see the movie, but now that I have, the judging shall commence.
The unique angle that Extremely Wicked claims to have on Ted Bundy is that of his former girlfriend, Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins). The movie is based on Kloepfer’s memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, which details the years she spent living and raising a child with the serial killer, unaware of his true nature. It would be an intriguing point of view if the movie took it seriously.
Director Joe Berlinger isn’t new to this subject matter: he’s helmed numerous movies and shows about serial killers, including a Ted Bundy documentary series on Netflix. Berlinger’s interest has long been scrutinizing the lives of murderers, and that focus persists in his latest film—at the cost of sidelining Elizabeth Kloepfer in her own story. Extremely Wicked may have been based on Kloepfer’s memoir, but she’s just an ancillary character here. As the movie progresses, Efron receives considerably more screen time, and Collins is reduced to drinking wine and looking forlorn while Bundy’s escapades play out on her living room TV. Bundy anchors the movie while Kloepfer floats by in transitional scenes. Extremely Wicked purports to explore the psychology of a manipulated woman, but it’s not long before it gives up and becomes another by-the-numbers serial killer biopic.
It is, at least, a competently made by-the-numbers serial killer biopic. The screenplay, restructuring common knowledge into cinematic twists and turns, manages to make familiar details feel lurid again. The cast is effective all around, particularly Zac Efron, who seems cognizant of the ethical quandaries tangled up in such a role. He balances historical representation, performative entertainment, and self-condemnation quite well. Even when the movie’s pacing begins to drag in the latter half, it’s still interesting to watch Efron slither his way into such sinister skin. The movie is a showcase for him, after all.
And it’s not much else. The most distinct feature of Extremely Wicked is its bloodlessness: none of Bundy’s murders are ever shown, so that the audience learns of Bundy’s behaviors alongside Kloepfer. But without visual depictions of Bundy’s most monstrous deeds—and without a concerted effort to delve into their effect on Kloepfer—the movie becomes a one-note parade of Bundy’s charisma. The commodification of our morbid fascination with serial killers has greatly increased the media attention given to mass killers, and not without consequence. Do we really need a two-hour reminder that a rapist eluded punishment because he was charming?