“Please put on gloves while handling human remains,” “They parted their hair in the middle,” and “Why is an accused double murderer not wearing handcuffs?” were just some of the things that I shouted at the new Netflix docu-series, Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes.
The series, directed by Joe Berlinger – an already established true-crime documentary filmmaker – is a look at Bundy’s crimes through those involved, but centers around a series of tapes recorded by journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. Michaud and Aynesworth had the opportunity to record a series of interviews with Bundy while he was on death row, and it resulted in hundreds of hours of recorded conversation.
The series is well-made and supplemented by interviews with journalists, investigators, victims, and lawyers on the case, as well as archival footage from news casts and the trial itself. It allows viewers to see the nuances of the ‘70s, a time period that allowed Bundy to get away with murder for so long, but it ultimately resulted in his capture and death.
I, personally, enjoyed the series, but something about it kept leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Aspects of it that I couldn’t put my finger on resulted in the irrepressible urge to shout obscenities at the screen every time someone involved in the case fell for Bundy’s sociopathic narcissism. Then, during a recent My Favorite Murder episode, a true crime and comedy podcast that has helped the genre rise to popularity, host Georgia Hardstark put the feeling into words: “I watched two episodes, and I was like, ‘Why am I so angry and not enjoying this..” And usually, I’m interested in Ted Bundy sh–t. And I realized it’s because I have to hear his f–king voice, and that’s the point of the show: to hear him talk to a reporter,” Hardstark said to her cohost Karen Kilgariff. “I f–king hate [Bundy] so much . . . and he’s said what he’s going to say by murdering a bunch of women. That was his side of the story.” Though people involved in the case echo the same sentiments — that Bundy was sick and hard to be around — I still found myself thinking, “Why does he get a say in this?”
So perhaps it makes sense that my apprehension got even worse when the trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile was revealed last week. Also directed by Joe Berlinger, this film is a look at Ted Bundy, played by millennial sweetheart Zac Efron. This film is from the perspective of his girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, played by the ever-lovely Lily Collins. The trailer is . . . concerning, to say the least.
The trailer starts in 1969 Seattle where Kloepfer first meets Bundy in a bar. As their subsequent romance continues, an upbeat rock song plays in the background, which gives the trailer a Bonnie and Clyde rom-com taste rather than feeling like a story about one of America’s most prolific serial killers. The trailer attempts to counter that as Efron darkly muses over scenes of Bundy’s life, saying, “There are things you don’t know, that will shock you beyond your worst nightmare.” The trailer shows scenes ranging from Bundy at home with Kloepfer and her daughter, to him getting pulled over while trying to explain a ski mask in the back of his car. There’s an odd dichotomy happening when the punchy seventies music is punctuated with Bundy’s signature smirks at the camera, made only more unnerving when performed with Efron’s familiar charm. It leaves us wondering: What is this story about? Kloepfer’s tumultuous relationship with Bundy? The women he murdered? Or is it a glorification of how he got away with it?
Shortly after the trailer was released, the film was shown at Sundance to mixed reviews. Vulture critic Emily Yoshida says that the film serves as a “showcase for Zac Efron,” and not much else. Berlinger claims that the film is from Kloepfer’s perspective, but it skips over the five years of their relationship where Kloepfer actually reported Bundy to police after she suspected him of kidnapping and murdering two women at Lake Sammamish. The film ultimately glosses over Kloepfer’s suspicions of Bundy by leaving her in the dust as he continues his killing spree. “If Liz suspected her live-in boyfriend that early on of a violent crime, why did she stay with him?” Yoshida asks the reader. “What was that like? Extremely Wicked misses out on some of the most important beats of its supposed premise by skipping over this chapter entirely.”
Emily Tannenbaum from Cosmopolitan had a different perspective. Though she ultimately thinks that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile isn’t a “great” movie, it is not what the trailer sold us. “Yes, from the eyes of a lover, we see the charming side of Bundy he was truly famous for, but there’s an undercurrent of creep-factor that, without spoiling the film, is the cause of a well-placed, shocking twist,” Tannenbaum writes. “Never is there any doubt Bundy did what he was accused of. The entire film begs the question: if you were in bed with a monster, would you know it?” The trailer seems just to be the victim of poor editing, not a display of the true nature of the film.
Overall, critics seem to agree that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile may fall flat. This could be due to the script writing or the fact that Bundy’s crimes and trials were so highly publicized that Berlinger is telling us a story we have all heard before. To the avid true-crime fan, it’s a story that we know date-by-date, step-by-step, and victim-by-victim. It would be refreshing if we could see Bundy from the perspective of someone who knew him, someone who fell prey to his charms like Kloepfer did, but it sounds like Berlinger doesn’t succeed in this endeavour. Instead, the film may be relying too much on the shock value of Bundy’s crimes when there is no shock to be had any more.
This raises the question: if a good movie can’t be made about one of America’s most prolific serial killers, what makes good true-crime media? One common vein I have found in wildly successful true crime media is focus on the victims’ stories and the disillusionment of the “genius” serial killer. Of course, Bundy was charming and knew how to work the system so that he could literally get away with murder for almost a decade, but that doesn’t make him a genius. It just makes him a narcissistic, psychopathic, white man who didn’t like women.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile does not have a release date yet; however, if you would like to learn more about Ted Bundy you can check out Tell-Tale Crimes on page 5.