As the Bundy Tapes was streaming on Netflix, most viewers were also aware of an upcoming feature-length film about Ted Bundy's life starring former Disney alumni Zac Efron. Many assumed that the documentary series was a brash attempt to capitalise on the impending Bundy craze that the film would generate, however – low and behold – Joe Berlinger turned out to be the director of both. This meant for relief and confidence that the feature film would bare substance, after all, if the people making it were the same people who fleshed out his murderous timeline so intricately, then they know the story back-to-front.
It must be said that EXTREMELY WICKED SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE is a showcase for Zac Efron's insane talent. He's a personal favourite of mine and despite making films like The Paperboy, Parkland and We Are Your Friends (amongst so many more) it's frustrating to see people ridicule him as that “High School Musical Kid”. Shit, are these people serious? They must have forgotten that Kirk Russell, Even Peters, Ryan Gosling and a slew of other respected actors come from the same factory. Perhaps now, with this phenomenal performance in his pocket, those tiresome heckles can be put to rest.
With the 10-part documentary series preceding the film, we venture into the feature with a comprehensive knowledge of Ted Bundy and his crimes. We know what he did and how he did it. We know his personality and his mannerisms. We know his manipulation and his lies. And most perversely, we know his charisma and his charm. I can only assume that because the viewer is so well schooled on the subject that Berlinger and Co chose to ignore just about all of it. There is no violence in the film, nor are there any substantial crimes. In fact the very stuff that such a confronting title as EXTREMELEY WICKED SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE promises, is nowhere to be seen. You are probably aware that the title is actually a quote from the judge upon sentencing Bundy to death, and yet surely the filmmakers knew that those very words come with expectations.
Suffice to say the film is essentially the Cliffsnotes version of events. It all but ignores his actual crimes entirely. It depicts Bundy's relationships with two women and chronicles a few of his encounters with authorities. We see him drinking at bars, reading books and enjoying conjugal visits in prison. Of course throughout the course of his trial - which is all too briefly depicted - we hear a few grisly details of his crimes, yet never actually taken to those depths of depravity that the we would expect from such a bold title. What a disappointed it is for them to have squandered the opportunity to fully depict his story, and to have wasted such a brilliant lead performance.
Lily Collins offers a strong supporting role as Liz, Bundy's former girlfriend. She gives an understated performance that attempts to highlight Bundy's expert manipulation. Haley Joel Osment plays Liz's new boyfriend in a peculiar and seemingly unnecessary adage to the story at hand. He is quite good nevertheless. Other players include Grace Victoria Cox, Jim Parsons and John Malkovich, who – again – are all adequate.
And by all other accounts the film is very well made. The overall tone and recreation of the 1970's era is perfectly handled, and the use of actual archival footage to depict the media coverage is on-point. The colour grade, paired with the costume design and makeup, feels authentic... only to add to the bitter disappointment that the most important element – the story – was so thoughtlessly handled. Without the confrontation of Bundy's crimes, or any emotional charge to fuel the drama, the film lands with zero impact. Berlinger (whose only other feature film was Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows) is clearly a master documentarian and not a Hollywood type, and while he has a tenacious knack for digging deep into subjects for academy purposes, he hasn't the skill to bridge the fictional divide.
Do yourself the favour and watch Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. It will astound you. But if you insist on watching EXTREMELY WICKED SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE then do so purely for Zac Efron. This is his film.... and what a shame he wasn't given a better script, a better structure and a better director.