As branding goes, being the “Ted Bundy programming service” might seem like a dubious title. Yet Netflix continues to mine that vein with “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” a movie that stars Zac Efron as the notorious serial killer, and Lily Collins as the woman with whom he was involved.
Netflix premiered the four-part documentary “Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” in January, unleashed amid a mini-wave of projects devoted to what has been called “celebrity monsters.” The Bundy series was produced by veteran documentarian Joe Berlinger, who makes a rare foray into scripted entertainment by directing this movie, which derives its title from the way the judge at Bundy’s trial characterized his killing spree.
Shot in a spare manner, “Extremely Wicked” adheres closely to the facts of the case. It’s adapted from the book “The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy” by Elizabeth Kendall, whom Collins portrays in the film.
By emphasizing Kendall’s point of view, the tone approximates that of a traditional Lifetime movie, where a woman is shocked to discover a terrible secret about the man with whom she becomes involved.
Still, the unsettling aspects of the Bundy story – particularly the idea of him being “dreamy,” as one courtroom onlooker observes – are only exacerbated by having Efron play him.
Because the focus is split between Kendall and Bundy, the movie isn’t particularly graphic. The narrative, in fact, somewhat disjointedly ping-pongs between the two – racing through Bundy and Kendall’s courtship, her initial faith in him and her later efforts to move on with her life, while chronicling his time in prison, his new relationship with Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario) and bizarre behavior while acting as his own attorney during the trial.
The main problem is that it’s difficult to dramatize Bundy in this fashion without somehow glamorizing him – an issue then and now. Both the documentary and the movie make note that the courtroom was filled with young women who were oddly drawn to the case, through a combination of Bundy’s good looks and the sordidness of his crimes.
Efron not only bears a striking resemblance to Bundy (the hairdo certainly helps) but deftly captures the off-kilter nature of his demeanor. That doesn’t elevate the material, necessarily, as much as it does add to the queasiness watching it.
This question of how media depict serial killers, notably, goes back decades, and the fascination with Bundy is hardly new. Mark Harmon played him in “The Deliberate Stranger,” a 1986 TV movie broadcast three years before Bundy’s execution, at a time when network TV was the preferred medium for this kind of fare.
Netflix has nevertheless been questioned about the abundance of violent content on the service, including a Washington Post article titled “Does Netflix have a killer problem?”
In his director’s statement, Berlinger notes that the Bundy trial was the first to be nationally televised, and that the case “turned serial murder into a national television spectacle.” Drawing a line from then to the current appetite for true crime, he says, “The tone of the film is a self-reflexive look at the dangers of treating murderers as mainstream entertainment.”
That argument, frankly, seems as questionable as it is self-serving. But if there’s really someone to blame for the true-crime wave in general, and the Ted Bundy portion of it in particular, everyone – from those watching these projects to, yes, those of us writing about them – might want to start by taking a look in the mirror.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” premieres May 3 on Netflix and in select theaters.