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Non-Review Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile

There’s an interesting film somewhere within Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile.

After all, the serial killer is a fascinating figure in the American popular consciousness. Although the serial killer’s stature has declined since its peak in the nineties, the recent “true crime” boom on both streaming services and in podcasts have helped to reignite some interest in the figure. Indeed, it is worth noting that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile feels almost like a companion piece to director Joe Berlinger’s other Ted Bundy project, the Netflix documentary Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. As such, it is perhaps revealing that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile feels like an appendix to The Ted Bundy Tapes, an extra that dramatises the meatier material presented in that streaming service true crime documentary.

Killer good looks.

After all, although Berlinger has worked on narrative films before, he is known primarily as a documentarian. (There is some small irony that his most prominent narrative film is Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows.) Inevitably, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile would feel secondary. It may have premiered on the festival before The Ted Bundy Tapes, but it was released afterwards, ensuring that to the casual viewer it will seem like something of a response to that breakout hit. More than that, though, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile feels like it has very little new to say about either its serial killer or its cultural context. There is surprisingly little in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile that isn’t evoked by the words “Ted Bundy.”

The serial killer is a well-explored subject in popular fiction, having been the focus of decades of narratives and deconstructions. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile looks for an interesting angle on its subject, but never finds a way in. The result is a film that has an interesting premise, but which struggled to get under the skin of a serial killer.

Slice of life.

To be fair, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile starts with a lot weighted against it. Although there are any number of recognisable and influential serial killers – figures like Jeffrey Dahmer or Ed Gein – Ted Bundy occupies a unique place in the American cultural landscape. Much like Charles Manson had done a decade earlier, Bundy consciously and overtly blurred the line between celebrity and serial killer. “I’m more popular than Disneyworld,” Bundy boasts at one point in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile, and he might be right. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile repeatedly emphasises the multimedia circus that his trial becomes, complete with ridiculous bowtie and surreal interjections.

There are interesting ideas nestled within Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile. Most obviously, the film is fascinated with the image of Bundy, both his own manipulation of it and the outside perception of it. There are most likely very few fresh angles to be found on one of the most notorious monsters of the twentieth century, but Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile finds an interesting hook. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile draws from Elizabeth Kloepfer’s memoir covering her long-term relationship with Bundy. The promise is a glimpse of a psychopath through the eyes of somebody with whom they were intimate. The film feels like something of a companion piece to My Friend Dahmer, an attempt to get a candid snap at a mythic monster.

Crossing the line.

There are a few intriguing beats nestled within this set-up. Most effectively, Berlinger leans into the all-American charm of Bundy; it is no coincidence that “Disneyworld” was the first place that his mind went when measuring his own popularity. In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile, Bundy sneaks under the radar because of how skillfully he packages himself. Bundy is crafting a wholesome persona, built around the “aw, shucks!” idealism of the American nuclear family. “How the heck did you get so smart?” he asks Kloepfer’s daughter at one point. “I get it from my mom,” she replies. “You do, don’t you?” Bundy responds. Later, Bundy courts another love interest with images of suburban tranquility, “We’ll get a house, with a Mercedes. We’ll have a dog.”

There is something very effective in the ambiguity that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile creates around Bundy’s investment in this all-American ideal. Zac Efron plays Bundy with an engaging dead-eyed charm, making it difficult to read the intentions behind the well-practised mannerisms. As Bundy inserts himself into the lives of a single-mother and her daughter, as he browses for puppies at a dog shelter, the film invites the audience to wonder why he is doing what he is doing. Is Bundy simply doing all of this to provide camouflage for his real sadistic impulses or does he genuinely want that suburban ideal? Is there any connection between the violence that Bundy commits out in the world and the wholesome image that he presents of himself at home?

Courting public opinion.

In its best moments, as Kloepfer remembers the little cues in the relationship that added up to a larger sense of unrest, the film suggests that the two are perhaps more closely connected than people would like to think. When Bundy’s hand caressed Kloepfer’s neck, was it affection or violence or a strange intermingling of both? At one point, Bundy quite literally drags his crimes into the bed that he shares with Kloepfer. The boundaries between outside and inside blur, between the stereotypical loving boyfriend that Bundy plays and the ruthless killer that he is out in the world. In its strongest moments, anchored in Berlinger’s direction and the performances of Efron and Collins, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile suggests that there may even be overlap.

Unfortunately, these moments are rather few and far between. Instead, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile often wallows in melodrama, repeating its most obvious points. When Ted rings the house from prison, he is shocked to discover that Kloepfer’s co-worker is answering the phone. “You’re killing her,” Jerry warns Ted, which feels just a little over-dramatic when talking to a real serial killer who has literally killed people. This is not to diminish the emotional abuse that Kloepfer received, simply the ridiculously heightened manner in which Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile chooses to frame it. The movie doubles down, with Jerry later warning Kloepfer, “He’s killing you, because you’re letting him.”

Window of opportunity.

The other big issue with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile is that most of the film covers well-worn ground. There is some irony in this, given how many of the other films and television shows that covered these ideas first would have been inspired and informed by the media circus around Bundy; films like Natural Born Killers or Zodiac. There is something of the John Carter effect in all of this, an adaptation of a hugely influential thing that feels outdated for having arrived after so much media shaped by the thing. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile banks heavily on scenes of Bundy managing his publicity, of courting groupies, of playing to the audience. However, these seem like stock beats an a modern serial killer story; they are not surprising.

There are some small pleasures to be found in these sequences, notably at the fringes; Efron understanding the degree to which Bundy is flattered by the attention, the state prosecutors trying to outflank Bundy on matters of spectacle, Judge Edward Cowart trying to maintain some degree of control over the circus that is unfolding. However, the big ideas feel overly familiar and routine. They have all been done before, and better. Bundy was an earth-shattering revelation when he was first arrested, but has permeated popular culture to the degree that he almost seems routine. For all that he was the main attraction at the time, Bundy now seems like a sideshow.

He certainly has conviction.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile seems to be positioning itself as a relatively novel take on the serial killer genre; notably, the film avoids depicting Bundy’s violent attacks. This is a reasonable choice on a number of levels; that sort of violence can often be exploitative, the audience already knows what Ted Bundy did, and the narrative is consciously rooted in Kloepfer’s perspective. However, there is a sense in which Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile seems prouder of this approach than it should be. After all, the audience’s preexisting knowledge of Bundy is very much at odds with Kloepfer’s (implicitly wilful) ignorance of his crimes, creating a tension that the film never quite manages to exploit.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile is solid, sturdy, but somewhat underwhelming. Its insights never feel especially fresh, and its anchored in a sense of novelty that doesn’t feel earned. This is a shame, as there are a lot of interesting elements at work in the film, they just never coalesce.

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2 Responses

  1. Sometimes think I could write a book on Bundy. You’re right. There’s just so much out there already.

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