Efron's portrayal of the notorious serial killer will leave feeling disturbed and uneasy, but you'll find yourself gripped by his stand-out performance.
Ted Bundy, the infamous serial killer who murdered countless young women in the 1970s, seems to be back on everyone’s radar right now. First, Netflix released their documentary series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes back in January, directed by Joe Berlinger. This was undoubtedly a tool to heighten the public’s interest just in time for the second instalment of Bundy-related media, also directed by Berlinger, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Even if you’re not interested in the story of Bundy, the length of the title alone is enough to intrigue; it is a verbatim statement said by the real judge ruling over Bundy’s trial in court, Edward Cowart (played in the film by John Malkovich). Despite his atrocious crimes, there is something morbidly fascinating about Bundy: he was so charismatic and charming that very few people believed he could have committed these horrible murders for years, and this is exactly what this film plays upon.
Extremely Wicked looks at Bundy (expertly portrayed by Zac Efron) in a different light to the many documentaries on the serial killer, almost excluding his crimes from the story and instead focussing on his personal life. The script is adapted from the 1981 memoir written by Bundy’s long-term girlfriend, Elizabeth Kendall (played by Lily Collins), and as such, takes a much more personal view of Bundy as we see him through the eyes of Kendall. We never see him commit a single crime, only hearing of the news stories throughout the film, and this is partly what makes this film a tiny bit terrifying. Seeing Bundy as human and ‘normal’ reminds us that killers and other criminals could be walking among us and we’d have absolutely no clue, which is a scary prospect indeed. Beyond this personal element, the plot of the film pretty much takes a back seat; the characters are what really drive the narrative.
Efron is the perfect actor to take on the role of Bundy. With his violent crimes omitted on screen, Efron’s charm and good looks match up to how the killer himself would have been viewed back in the 70s, and this is exactly what makes the audience realise just how dangerous the man was. This film is not about romanticising serial killers but reminding us that they don’t always look as we might imagine. Witnessing Efron as Bundy become close to Collins as Liz, watching him form a bond with her daughter as she grows up around him, and then ultimately realising with horror that a man who murdered countless young women was trusted by his girlfriend to watch her daughter from time to time is what gives this film its tone that cannot really be explained. Watching the striking final scene, which finally brings to light the true monstrosity of Bundy’s actions, left me feeling incredibly disconcerted and uneasy, which was surely Berlinger’s intention. Whilst Efron undeniably takes the spotlight throughout this film, he is supported by a strong cast. Collins makes a convincing Liz, becoming ever more troubled and distressed as she begins to realise who her boyfriend really is. Jim Parsons, far from his familiar Big Bang territory, is excellent as one of Bundy’s prosecutors, Larry Simpson; however, it is Malkovich as Judge Edward Cowart who reigns in the courtroom scenes, his delivery of the titular statement is both powerful and chilling.
If Joe Berlinger’s goal was to unnerve the audience whilst also providing a gripping and entertaining watch, then he has certainly succeeded. The film feels a little short with a running time under two hours, and there seems to be something missing. However, his is potentially because we don’t witness Bundy’s crimes, therefore not witnessing the whole story, almost certainly intentional given that the narrative derives primarily from Liz’s perspective. Despite this feeling of missing out on something, whether intentional or not, Extremely Wicked proves to be an impressive watch, especially after all of the controversy surrounding its release regarding Efron seeming too attractive as Bundy. This is not your typical summer watch, but definitely a worthwhile one.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019), directed by Joe Berlinger, is distributed in the UK by Sky Cinema, certificate 15. It is available to stream now through Sky Cinema.