Ted Bundy is one of those names that has long passed into the annals of our collective cultural consciousness. It rests there with those of so many other historical villains, from John Wilkes Booth to Charles Manson to Osama Bin Laden.
Bundy, you’ll recall, was the good-looking guy who charmed most everyone he met – but especially women – yet who, over the course of several years, regularly and savagely murdered scores of the women he encountered in several states, including Washington. Finally captured, brought to trial and found guilty, he was executed in Florida in 1989.
A number of books and movies have explored the Bundy phenomenon, including Ann Rule’s 1980 nonfiction account “The Stranger Beside Me” and the 1986 movie “The Deliberate Stranger” starring Mark Harmon.
And I use the word phenomenon deliberately. One of the most popular genres both in movies and on television, embodied in such shows as “Snapped” and “Homicide Hunter,” involves true-crime studies of murder. But even amid such a collection of rogues, Bundy stands out – not just for his crimes but for the fact that someone so bent and twisted hid behind a mask of such affable normality.
Bundy’s attraction is, in fact, the basis for the Netflix movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” which was directed by Joe Berlinger, the filmmaker best known for co-directing (with Bruce Sinofsky) the critically acclaimed 1996 documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills.”
Forgoing documentary this time, Berlinger opted to make a narrative adaptation of the 1981 memoir “The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy,” credited to Elizabeth Kendall – the woman who both lived with and loved Bundy – even though she was the first to report her suspicions of him to police.
We meet Kendall (played by the English actress Lily Collins), a young, divorced single mother as she is approached in a bar by Bundy (played by Zac Efron). They end up spending the night together, and she awakens to find the apron-wearing Ted fixing breakfast for her young daughter. What a catch, she thinks.
From there, though, we follow the couple as Bundy – pursuing his intent to become a lawyer – is soon targeted by police as a suspect in attacks on young women in and around Seattle. And then, progressively, he is implicated in similar crimes in Utah, Colorado and finally Florida.
Throughout, Bundy is adamant: The police have the wrong man. They are framing him. He is innocent. And, just as progressively, Kendall falls into a depressive state from which she’ll need help to escape.
As efficient a filmmaker as Berlinger is, his coup was in casting the former teen heartthrob Efron. Proving that he is more than just a pretty face atop a shredded body, Efron wears Bundy’s mask so well that it’s clear how difficult it would be for anyone to believe that underneath it lurks the person capable of such wicked, evil and vile deeds.
Efron proves so good at portraying Bundy that it's easy to believe that among those confounded by Bundy’s deception were not just Kendall — but even the judge (played by John Malkovich) who ultimately condemned him to death.