It may have been something of a surprise to learn that serial killer Ted Bundy was going to be portrayed on-screen in a new film by Zac Efron. Yep, the same actor who had sprung to prominence through the High School Musical franchise, was to portray one of history’s most famous and savage serial killers in this new look at the events of his life, most notably the infamous trial that led to him getting the death penalty for his crimes. A strange fit, you might think, but in actuality his inclusion here is something of a masterstroke as not only does he have a striking similarly to Bundy, but if you have been following his career his work in recent years has been hugely impressive.
Taking its cue from the bestseller The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kloepfer, the film begins with Ted and Liz (Lily Collins) meeting in a prison years after the atrocities have been uncovered and Bundy’s death sentence laid down. Their conversation is heated (as you would expect in such circumstances) and we then head back to the 1970’s and the two’s first encounter at a local bar where their fraught relationship begins. Liz believes that Ted is being used by the police because he fits the profile of the killer but as the murders that get more frequent and Ted’s behaviour more erratic, she soon begins to unravel the truth no matter how charming he may be.
Directed by Joe Berlinger, who has made his name with notable documentaries on Whitey Bulger and Jessica Chambers, as well as one on the Ted Bundy tapes, he seems like a perfect fit for such a endeavour but despite some brilliant moments throughout, you can’t help but feel that this is mostly a missed opportunity. Focusing more on the, dare we say it, charming side of Bundy it always feels like something is missing, with the horrific side relegated to the back of the line without needing to be spoke about outside its most sensational of environments (the televised trials, for example). There’s plenty of films and documentaries out there that tell the dark side, of course, but for this to have worked as well as it thinks it does, we needed a little more of those to make a satisfying whole.
Credit, though, to Efron who is superb in the lead and it’s easily the best performance of his career to date: embodying all of aspects of Bundy to a tee – both the lighter side and the sadistic, murderous side – throughout. He is on screen almost through the entire length of the film and his beguiling, effervescent performance is hard to ignore. Collins, meanwhile, struggles to keep Liz as compelling as her counterpart, pushed aside in many ways when in actuality it’s her story that may have made everything much more compelling.
It may perhaps send some alarm bells ringing that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is heading straight to Netflix and Sky Cinema in the UK, but it’s a level above its straight-to-DVD counterparts – but only just, thanks in no small way to Efron’s charismatic yet devious performance at the tip of the iceberg. Intriguing, if somewhat flat.
Scott J.Davis | ★★ 1/2
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Biography, Crime | USA, 2019 | 15 | 3rd May 2019 (UK)| Sky Cinema | Dir.Joe Berlinger | Lily Collins, Zac Efron, Angela Sarafyan, John Malkovich, Kaya Scodelario, Jim Parsons