Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. 2019. Directed by Joe Berlinger. Screenplay by Michael Werwie— based on the book The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall.
Starring Lily Collins, Zac Efron, Angela Sarafyan, James Hetfield, Grace Victoria Cox, Dylan Baker, Kaya Scodelario, Haley Joel Osment, Terry Kinney, Jim Parsons, & John Malkovich.
COTA Films / Ninjas Runnin’ Wild Productions / Voltage Pictures
Rated R. 110 minutes.
Biography / Crime / Drama / Thriller
If you’re looking for someone to join the false outrage: look elsewhere. Father Gore’s a longtime true crime reader and an amateur expert on serial killers. There are plenty of other movies to get mad at for entirely legitimate reasons, like exploitation and a lack of care for the victims of violent murders— for instance, the recent, wildly misguided abomination, The Haunting of Sharon Tate.
Joe Berlinger’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile— like his Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, a whole other can of wormy outrage we won’t get into here— is not misguided, nor is it exploitative. Ted Bundy isn’t glorified here. Yes, there are moments where he’s shown as a human being, and, just like in Berlinger’s documentary, we’re forced to confront the fact Bundy was, indeed, a human being, sometimes charming, intelligent, and slick at that. We don’t have to care about him or like him. Nobody’s trying to say he’s worthy of sympathy, or empathy, or any of the weird thirst that cropped up on the internet after Netflix aired the docuseries.
Ignoring people like Bundy— whether serial or spree killers, terrorists, ruthless gangs, cartel members— and relegating them to the label of ‘monster’ is to ignore the fact that humans can be vicious creatures. It’s akin to going back to the days of stranger danger, trying to convince everybody it’s the weird loner who lives in a decrepit apartment, hoarding mountains of newspapers and broken doll parts who’s out there killing people. The majority of these hideous murderers are actually indistinguishable on a social level. The cliche’s true: these men could be your next door neighbour and you’d never know it until they showed up on the news.
Berlinger foregoes showing the brutal trail of murder Ted left in his wake. It’s true that the screenplay doesn’t focus on Liz as much as the marketing suggests. That being said, the perspective remains hers, even when she’s not literally on-screen— same as a third-person narration in a novel which can, and does, often take on the POV of a specific character, or the author themselves, despite not being written in first-person. Liz had no clue about Bundy’s crimes, so the viewer sits in that same position while the film’s events play out. He dominated her life because of the way she was deceived, likewise he receives the majority of screen time.
This isn’t meant to portray the serial killer in an exciting way, and, in light of that, it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. A large part of Ted’s personality is the essence of the banality of evil— he was an aberrant branch of humanity, and, underneath all the terror he imposed with his homicidal rampage, he was nothing but a boring, painfully normal man. If Ted weren’t a murderer and lived today, he’s the type women would lament is a waste of good looks because he’s just another straight white Republican male, more concerned with the economy than a woman’s rights. Adding to that, if Ted weren’t a murderer, he never would’ve mattered at all.
And the fact Ted was handsome to many can’t be ignored. In one scene, Berlinger depicts several women interviewed on TV who found the killer cute, some of them incapable of believing “someone like him” could ever do the heinous things of which he’d been accused. This eerie attraction to murder is NOT NEW. The way some women flocked to Bundy— sending him letters, trying to visit him in jail, going to his trial and screaming for him like other girls were doing for Led Zeppelin— is a precursor to today’s generation and the horny young ladies of Tumblr who find Bundy, The Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, white supremacist mass shooter Dylann Roof, and many other creeps, to be “dreamy” and worthy of lust.
Liz was never a dumb person. Neither are the women who found Bundy attractive dumb, though they were, indeed, misguided. In the 1970s, serial killers were a relatively new phenomenon in pop culture. The Zodiac Killer was one of the first to grab the American media’s attention to an enormous degree. When Bundy’s crimes came to light, the idea of serial murder was fresh in the collective mind of the public. People thought, like the Zodiac, that those who hunted and killed other human beings were masked terrors in the night, or their crimes were assumed to be the work of someone escaped from a psychiatric asylum, a terrible monster frothing at the mouth, unable to control its urges. The public, and the media, were totally unprepared for someone who, on the surface, appeared as a normal person— an All-American, boy next door-type— to be revealed as a vicious rapist and murderer preying on their daughters.
The media doesn’t escape Berlinger’s scrutiny. He’s well aware of how a murder trial can become an absolute circus (see: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills). The American justice system doesn’t get a pass either. Bundy playing a part in his own trial was fodder for the media, but John Malkovich’s performance as Judge Edward D. Cowart also shows how people allowed the killer’s natural charisma to influence them to an unnerving degree. Cowart’s line “let‘s put on a show” and the laughter of people in the courtroom like a twisted sitcom shows that it isn’t only the media who, all too often, disregard the feelings of victims and their families. The trial devolved into a dark comedy routine broadcast for the nation, at once appealing to the logic of ‘sunshine is the best disinfectant’ and also to the macabre spectacle of American true crime entertainment.
Also, if it were a black or brown serial killer, for instance, would the fanfare have been so strangely jubilant in the courtroom? Would Cowart have traded silly jabs with Richard Ramirez, or the so-called Atlanta Monster, Wayne Williams, or Lonnie Franklin a.k.a the Grim Sleeper? Father Gore’s inclined to say no. While the media’s at fault for covering Bundy in the way they did, including giving airtime to people who found him attractive and treated him like a rockstar, the court is just as guilty, if not more, for helping perpetuate the image of an intelligent and charismatic Ted for the masses.
“People don’t realise that there are killers among them.”
Part of what Liz’s perspective offers is the human side of Bundy, the side people wish didn’t exist because it’d be easier to call him a monster. He was an awful specimen of a man. This doesn’t change that he made Liz and her daughter feel good— at least intermittently, given his legal troubles. The scene where he’s cooking breakfast, taking care of Liz’s little girl, is one of those moments, and it’s able to illustrate the way Ted pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.
Liz, in her own humanity, felt for him, and saw the good in him while the bad was purposefully hidden far from her sight. Many of us are blind to the worst in our partners. It just so happens Liz’s partner happened to be one of the most notorious killers in American history, at no fault of her own. The heavy focus on him rather than her is to make clear the deception had nothing to do with her, and everything to do with him.
Ultimately, Ted was a master of deception as adept at deluding himself as he was at fooling others. The final statement he makes in the courtroom shows exactly how deeply he believed in his own lies. More than that, his final moments, across the glass from Liz, also reveal the duality Ted tried to deny in himself. The tears he sheds suggest he wasn’t a pure psychopath, and he, at the bare minimum, realised what he’d done to Liz was wrong. He wipes them away, refusing to let the detective see, but, more importantly, refusing to allow himself that remaining drop of humanity clinging to his hideous psyche. Others might take this moment as the deliberate act of a psychopath, tearing up to make Liz believe his lies.
If you know more about Bundy this moment takes on different meaning.
The tears point to a remorse, however small or large, just like when Bundy refused to talk with Detective Robert Keppel about the final murder he committed before his arrest: the killing of 12-year-old Kimberly Leach. Ted was embarrassed of what he’d done, and this points to his having a conscience, buried beneath all the psychopathy. With this in mind, the tears he sheds over Liz were likely real. What’s more disturbing is that this renders Bundy less a caricature of a killer with “long teeth and saliva dripping off [his] chin” like the figurative Big Bad Wolf, and more a pathetic, weak-willed human whose life was spent destroying the lives of others all because he had mommy issues.Father Gore’s a fan of Berlinger, even if he doesn’t always hit the mark. Here, he does hit the mark, and many who’ve studied Bundy’s case, as well as read Liz’s book, will feel the same, even if not all of them do. There’s a misconception that telling the story from Liz’s POV means she would be the central character, and that’s not always the case. Her perspective is, effectively, the narrator of the story, so what the viewer sees is the view from which she witnessed Ted’s true nature unfold.
Many, many people know Bundy. It isn’t as if people will be surprised by the revelation of his crimes in the film. What Liz’s POV does is put us in a place where we don’t see all the horror and the gruesome recreations of crime scenes, we see what she saw: an attractive, smart, ambitious, and magnetic young man she thought could potentially be someone to marry one day. This isn’t what he was, and Berlinger isn’t asking us to AGREE with that assessment. So many people want to say Bundy wasn’t intelligent, that he was only lucky. In doing so this negates the experience of Liz, as well as others, who were drawn into the enigmatic, terrible world Bundy fabricated around him— to say Bundy wasn’t a great deceiver is to say Liz and the rest of those who were fooled weren’t intelligent enough to see through his lies, and, in a way, it’s arrogant for people to believe that when they could never imagine the life Liz had to live, both before and after she found out who Ted was genuinely.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile never glorifies its subject, opting to show him as a bland, dishonest, and cruel human being instead, focusing on the wreckage he created that extended beyond his victims and their mourning families. He was, by all accounts, a “total waste of humanity.” If anything, the film will provoke new discussions about the depiction of serial killers across all mediums, and questioning the morality of how we tell such stories is never, ever a bad thing.
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