Ted Bundy was one of the most notorious serial killers of modern American history, viciously murdering and raping over 30 women in the 1970’s. During much of that time Bundy had a female partner, who has often been sidelined as a victim of his manipulation, multiple personalities and deadly charm.
Loosely based on the book The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy, Joe Berlinger brings us a film that aims to explore the deceit and lies inherent in Bundys persona. Alongside his ability to charm his his way into people’s lives, homes and beds. Extremely Wicked has a tough job to do in ensuring Bundy does not become a mere film character. The reality of his crimes remaining clear, while bringing new insight to the table for the films audience. While managing the former, the end result is less clear in the latter. With a narrative that doesn’t fully allow Bundys female partner Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins) to take centre stage in film that should have been about her own experience and dark awakening.
Berlinger’s choice of Zac Efron as Ted Bundy is extremely clever. Bringing a charming, boyish and attractive man into the role of a mass murder who played with image, sexuality and charm to evade justice. The end result of this casting is a disarming, uncomfortable viewing experience that demonstrates Bundy’s ability to charm and gain access to those who took him on face value. Efron gives a career defining performance, placing Bundys personality centre stage and reflecting the complexity of his psychological manipulation and individualistic self protection. This is a performance that steals the film, creating one of its biggest successes while also emphasing its biggest failure; the lack of focus on Bundy’s female partner and her daughter.
Extremely Wicked never sinks into horror film territory by showing his horrendous crimes. This is to be commended with the film instead focussing on Bundys ability to drive his own agenda and snare people into his trap of perceived innocence. This is a film that never questions the horror of his actions, instead asking the audience to focus on the personality that drove some people to continue defending him right up to his conviction.
In this respect Extremely Wicked succeeds in building a visual study of the complexity and deceit inherent in the man. However, the narrative lets down Elizabeth Kloepfer, sidelining the opportunity to explore fully the complexity of her love for a man who committed such horrendous crimes. While we gain glimpses of her journey to enlightenment over the man she loved, this journey seems incomplete in structure, emotion and psychological assessment; leaving Bundy to take the spotlight, just as he did in life.
Extremely Wicked is a film that needed a longer running time to fully achieve the end result of balancing Bundys persona against the horrifying awakening of Elizabeth. And despite an incredibly strong performance from Efron, alongside a strong supporting cast. There are elements missing in ensuring the reality of Bundys crimes and manipulation of others are explored in full.