Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

Zac Efron successfully overcomes his Disney roots to portray notorious serial killer Ted Bundy in this intriguing yet misguided biopic from director Joe Berlinger. Previewed at Dundee Contemporary Arts’ DUNDEAD horror festival, EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL, AND VILE presents the case that love truly is blind.

The film explores Bundy’s relationship with single mother Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Kendall (Lily Collins), who is forced to question everything she knows about her handsome partner when he is connected to numerous murders across multiple states. Viewers are led to believe they will observe the point of view of Liz, gaining insight from her unique perspective as Bundy’s long-term girlfriend. Yet Berlinger and screenwriter Michael Werwie seem unsure of whose story they actually want to follow. The film begins with Liz, only to shift focus to the sensationalist media frenzy of Bundy’s trial, in which he played a pivotal role in his own defence. As a result, EXTREMELY WICKED feels like two separate films mashed together in an attempt to have its cake and eat it too.

“…by spending so much time joking around with him, Berlinger threatens to diminish any point he is trying to make. [There] are several humorous moments peppered throughout the film, some of which should not be funny.”

When you have a film involving one of history’s most infamous criminals, why not show viewers the Ted Bundy they all know and loathe? The film could be seen as a glorification of a man who represents the very worst of humanity. It is perfectly acceptable to depict Bundy as an attractive, charismatic individual from Liz’s perspective as, by all accounts, this was correct. Yet by spending so much time joking around with him, Berlinger threatens to diminish any point he is trying to make. Combining this tone with an upbeat rock soundtrack, there are several humorous moments peppered throughout the film, some of which should not be funny. At one point it is unclear if the viewer is meant to cheer for Bundy’s repeated attempts to escape custody.

Nevertheless, Efron is effectively creepy as Bundy. Charming with a steely gaze, the film doesn’t quite get under his skin the way it should, but there is always the sense of something dangerous rumbling beneath the surface. Building on earlier promise shown in Lee Daniels’ THE PAPERBOY, if Efron continues to choose difficult roles such as this, there is no reason why he can’t perhaps join the likes of Robert Pattinson and Shia LaBeouf in removing the shackles of mainstream fare to excel in the indie world. While Bundy’s double-life is only glimpsed here, the case for Efron is a compelling one.

“Nevertheless, Efron is effectively creepy as Bundy. Charming with a steely gaze, the film doesn’t quite get under his skin the way it should, but there is always the sense of something dangerous rumbling beneath the surface.”

Collins, however, receives the short end of the stick. She tries her best with the material but it is an entirely surface-level performance that is relegated to a supporting capacity. What could have been a fascinating look at the psychological effects the ordeal had on Liz is reduced to some tired-looking makeup and a glass of vodka in hand. Haley Joel Osment appears as a potential new suitor but is merely a stock character. The film would have benefitted from showing Liz struggle to move on from her incarcerated beau and celebrate her perseverance. Likewise, other notable actors make extended cameos. Jim Parsons tries his hardest to fit in but simply elicited surprised laughter from the audience. John Malkovich shows up for his paycheque and to crack a few deadpan jokes.

The film finally livens up in the third act as a verdict looms over the desperate Bundy, leading to a tense confrontation between the central couple. In one scene, Liz relives past memories with Bundy that are given a terrifying new meaning – the most unsettling involving a flashlight under the covers. The film incorporates real footage from the trial and pays half-hearted tribute to Bundy’s known victims. Sadly, this all comes too late. EXTREMELY WICKED is worth seeing for Efron’s performance but without him the whole project would sink. The emotional moments feels unearned in a curious and superficial biopic, that is unwilling to fully commit to its theme.

You can find out more about the DUNDEAD Film Festival at the DCA website.

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