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Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile


Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile | Review

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile | Review

Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kill Me: Berlinger Tackles Ted Bundy in Narrative Form

Revered documentarian Joe Berlinger, best known for his Paradise Lost trilogy, makes his first narrative feature in nearly twenty years with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a portrait of Ted Bundy based in part on an account published by his girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall, The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy. Berlinger simultaneously worked on a four-part television docu-series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes also primed for 2019, but his narrative version will likely gain more traction thanks to the stunt casting of Zac Efron, who bears a slight resemblance to the famed serial killer. Unfortunately, this casting, which immediately elevates the title, also is a significant detraction seeing as Michael Werwie’s screenplay takes only a superficial purview of Bundy’s relationships, and spends even less time on the stunning array of murder victims, instead focusing on the charming lothario’s insistence of his innocence and the mounting horror of Elizabeth once she’s able to look past his façade.

In 1969, Elizabeth Kendall (Lily Collins) falls in love with the charming and incredibly charismatic Ted Bundy (Efron), who embraces the fact she’s a single mother rearing a daughter on her own. They seem to be living a blissful fairy-tale existence when Ted is suddenly arrested for kidnapping and assaulting a young woman who picked him out of a line-up. Ted vehemently denies the charges but is found guilty and sentenced to serve a prison sentence in Colorado (meanwhile, a trail of murders in both Colorado and Utah begin to catch up with him). Escaping from prison, Ted goes on an infamous killing spree in Florida, where he is eventually apprehended and put on trial, providing legal counsel for himself in the first televised event of its kind in the US.

Intriguing but never coalescing into a hard-edged portrait of Bundy, Berlinger’s most compelling sequences are the courtroom reenactments, culled from the actual footage of the Floridian trial. It’s also here where Efron has enough time to stretch out a little, previously depicted in a series of repetitive sequences where he’s either wooing Elizabeth or protesting his innocence as accusations build against him.

Collins is solid as the dumbfounded Elizabeth, but she’s also presented as a merely a bland dupe, a curious figure in Bundy’s charade. More persuasive is Kayla Scoloderio as Carol Anne Boone, Bundy’s replacement emotional support system once Elizabeth distances herself, a woman who would give birth to Bundy’s child. There’s a more palpable neurosis on display here, one which the film takes pains to avoid in the depiction of Elizabeth (who instead embarks on a seemingly subpar relationship with a coworker played by Haley Joel Osment).

While Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is leaps and bounds of better quality than Berlinger’s last narrative film (2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2), it also feels shockingly sanitized. While Efron is enjoyable cast against type, this is hardly the transformation of say, a Jared Leto as Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27. Curiously, Berlinger chooses to show Efron in a state of undress, the actor’s extremely fit physique another distraction from the reality the film wishes to express—while Bundy may have been considered handsome, in no shape, way or form did he resemble Efron’s contemporary Hollywood aesthetic. A more appropriate approach, given these parameters, might have been for the material to be treated as something awash in its own self-awareness, like I, Tonya (2017), or even the gonzo camp of John Waters’ Serial Mom (1994)—which utilizes a court-room sequence inspired by the Bundy trial.

Still, there’s enough here to make this an enjoyable revisit of this grisly sociopath, whose unprecedented swath of carnage captivated the nation (days before his death, he admitted to over thirty murders, though authorities believe he likely killed even more women than this), and some highlights include strong supporting flashes from John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Dylan Baker and Terry Kinney.

Reviewed on January 27th at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres. 110 Minutes


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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