Director: Joe Berlinger
Starring: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, Haley Joel Osment, John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Dylan Baker, Brian Geraghty
In a string of films depicting infamous serial killers as of late, few have approached them from the disregarded loved ones left behind in their wake. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is told from the perspective of Ted Bundy’s girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer (Lily Collins), who refused to believe the truth about her partner for years. The name Ted Bundy is now synonymous with brutal killings and has become a part of the notorious underbelly of American life. Some may remember his malevolence distinctly while others may not know his exact crimes but, you sure know his name.
Zac Efron is not the first name that pops into your head when casting Bundy but side-by-side photos suggest it is an inspired choice. Known primarily for his comedic and musical roles, Efron has dabbled in weightier projects before. Minor roles in The Paperboy (2012) and Parkland (2013) have showcased his ability but never to the extent of Extremely Wicked. Director Joe Berlinger — who created Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019) — has opted for a lighter tone for his biopic but his casting of Efron, who plays on his movie star looks and terrifying charm, adds the perfect dash of imperceptible creepiness.
The film’s opening scene interlaces between then and now — then: dancing to ‘Crimson and Clover’ vs. now: Ted behind bars — which is highly effective. It is easy to see why Liz falls for Ted. He is attractive and charming and cares for her daughter like his own. However, their relationship — at first perceived as romance — at second glance, reveals something possibly sinister lurking beneath the surface. Between January to July 1974, women begin to go missing but life between Ted and Liz is sweet. Another interwoven montage of family life vs. news of the killings is, again, wholly effective and highly disturbing and offers a great insight to the kind man Ted was to Liz as opposed to the brutal monster towards his victims.
After the family’s move to Utah in 1975, the Bundy family unit begins to crumble: Ted is arrested and somehow convinces Liz that he’s been set up but Liz is losing hope as the trial begins. Ted’s time in prison is when Efron gets to really stretch his acting muscles the most. The problem though is that the film forgets halfway through that this is supposed to be Liz’s story. She is left at home crying on the sofa while Efron gets to have all the fun. He’s in court with John Malkovich, acting opposite Kaya Scoldelario (as Carole Ann Boone, Bundy’s ultimate devotee and later wife), and planning his next escape. All Liz has is the odd scene with Haley Joel Osment — who is underused and storyline serves no purpose other than to give Collins someone to act against — and more crying over her psycho boyfriend.
Bundy famously escaped custody twice: once out a window during trial and the other from prison, which landed him on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. In one of the best scenes from the film, Ted leaps out of the window to The Box Tops’ ‘The Letter’; the moment not only serves as a reminder of the change of times, but the tenacity and smarts of one of the most infamous serial killers of all time. As explored during the trial, the details of his crimes are horrific and eliminate any possible sympathy garnered for Bundy from earlier in the film and Berlinger rightfully forgoes to include scenes of Bundy’s killings, which lends to the film’s lighter tone.
“It has been a tragedy for this court to see the total waste of humanity that we have experienced here,” says John Malkovich’s judge during the court ruling. The film’s tone is a stark contrast to the brutality of Bundy’s crimes and this results in a rather strange and uneasy film, which is perhaps fitting. Extremely Wicked, based on Kloepfer’s Book, is uneven, yet punchy and it contains an excellent soundtrack, as well as a career best performance by the exceedingly charismatic Efron. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more surprising performance this year and, while Efron does elevate the film greatly, there is still much to enjoy.
“People don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin. People don’t realize that there are killers among them. People they liked, loved, lived with, work with and admired could the next day turn out to be the most demonic people imaginable.”