In Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, the narrative unfolds exactly like the true crime story we’re so familiar with: we’re introduced to Ted Bundy (Zac Efron), an attractive and charming man who is adored by most people around him, but something isn’t right – could this man really be capable of what they say? We don’t see Ted commit any of the murders he’s accused of, which makes us question if he really is guilty despite us knowing the truth.
For the first half of Extremely Wicked, we’re almost caught up with everyone else’s view of Ted, especially with Elizabeth “Liz” Kloepfer (Lily Collins) who is left feeling uncertain about her alluring and affable fiancé. Efron’s portrayal of Bundy is so brilliant that you forget this actor once played teen heartthrob Troy Bolton in Disney Channel’s High School Musical. He becomes the infamous killer so entirely in a performance that allows us to see Ted as the charismatic man everyone said he was, whilst still feeling somewhat alarmed by his demeanour.
The narrative is quite disjointed at the start, but the film finds its stride and remains both competent and powerful until the very end. Extremely Wicked is based on a book written by Kloepfer and is advertised as being told from her perspective – but the film never really takes anyone’s particular point of view. It’s only from Liz’s perspective in the sense that Ted’s murders happen off-screen, as to create the same cloud of doubt that everyone around him had during his time of activity. It’s an effective technique, but its execution isn’t perfect – especially when we, unfortunately, don’t learn much about Liz’s character.
However, the film still does well in conveying the anguish that Liz felt. She only saw one side to Ted and it’s the same side presented to the audience, which some may find boring to watch as all the gory and brutal deaths aren’t depicted. As Ted’s trial progresses, Liz’s deterioration is clearly visible as Collins gives an emotive performance alongside Efron. She’s at war with herself, questioning whether the man she loves could be capable of such vicious and violent atrocities as she watches the trial unfold live on television. It’s here, going into the film’s second half, that it finally outlines exactly what Ted did to the women he killed.
Extremely Wicked never fully puts us on Ted’s side. He’s cocky, arrogant and lying through his teeth; yet he still has fans who attend his trial which further reflects the impact he had on people. These women were attracted to him despite being scared about what might happen to them. There’s just something about Ted and he knows it. He’s a smart man studying law who eventually becomes his own lawyer. He starts joking around in court even though he’s literally on trial for murder. He knows how to play the game and it’s great to see Efron in action here – he’s in and out of control, he’s both level-headed and hot-headed. Who exactly is this man? The second half of the film shows parts of his real personality finally slip out – the bad seeping through the good which begins to raise even more alarm bells.
It’s intriguing to see just how far Ted proclaims his innocence until he shows a moment of weakness before his execution: the one scene that finally assures us that yes, he is undoubtedly capable of these violent crimes. Suddenly, all of the happy moments Ted and Liz shared together at the beginning of their relationship now have extremely dark undertones. He is the man they’ve been saying he is.
Extremely Wicked highlights the emotionally manipulative aspects of Ted and never allows us to be fully sympathetic towards him. This is heavily due to Efron’s remarkable performance in depicting a truly unusual serial killer of the ‘70s. Director Joe Berlinger’s decision to leave Bundy’s voice out of the film is another highlight. We don’t see things from his point of view and we’re never in his head. It’s perhaps a different type of true crime film than we’re used to as Bundy’s crimes aren’t re-enacted, which feels more respectful to his victims – some of the families of which are still alive.
It’s also worth checking out Berlinger’s Netflix documentary series about Bundy as it really explores the full extent of what he did. As Judge Edward Cowart (John Malkovich) said, Bundy was a “total waste of humanity,” but he was so much more than that; he was “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile.”
by Toni Stanger
Toni Stanger is a film and screenwriting graduate with a passion for cats, horror films and middle-aged actresses. Her favourite films include Gone Girl, Heathers, Scream and Excision. You can find her on Twitter and Letterboxd.