Zac Efron Is 'Extremely Wicked' as Ted Bundy, but the film's evil happens off-screen

Brian Douglas/NetflixZac Efron takes a dark turn in ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile.’
  • “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” is available to stream on Netflix and is showing for a limited time in select theatres.
  • Zac Efron convincingly channels the sinister charm of the serial killer Ted Bundy, but the film doesn’t quite match his performance.
  • Overall, it’s a worthy Sunday watch but isn’t all it was cracked up to be.
  • Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more stories.

A biographical crime thriller about the life and crimes of the serial killer Ted Bundy, the 2019 film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” is directed by Joe Berlinger with a screenplay from Michael Werwie.

The film is based on a memoir by Bundy’s former girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer, known by her pseudonym Liz Kendall in the film (played by Lily Collins), and stars Zac Efron as the handsome, intelligent, and secretly brutal murderer of at least 30 people.

Why you should care: The film tells the story from a different perspective

It’s one that for better or worse humanizes Ted Bundy and for once shares how his crimes affected the person who loved him the most. While most stories of serial killers focus on body counts and what led to those events, “Extremely Wicked” brings audiences into the courtroom and into Kendall’s home as she grapples with the fact that her lover may be a monster.

What’s hot: The casting of Efron as the good-looking sociopath almost perfectly mirrors the troubling reality of true events

Beyond the gruesomeness of his crimes (which the film largely doesn’t show), one of the factors that turned the Bundy case into such a media spectacle in the late 1970s and early ’80s was that the suspect didn’t seem to look or act the part. Bundy was smart and articulate, and he used his smile and charm to lure his victims. Seeing Bundy played by Efron, an actor known primarily for his musical and comedy chops, illustrates for modern audiences how someone believed to have committed such heinous crimes across several states could also have a fan club of women rooting for him at his trial.

Liz kloepferNetflixLily Collins as Liz Kendall.

Efron’s ability to shift his demeanour and his face from the grin of a former Disney Channel heartthrob to a deranged stare in a matter of seconds is at times genuinely unsettling. Collins is also good, but she is given significantly less to do as the loving but emotionally conflicted and confused Kendall.

What’s not: The pacing is all over the place, and the film seems stuck somewhere between a hokey reenactment and a self-serious drama

“Extremely Wicked” fails to clear one major hurdle with its storytelling: history. With Bundy’s story, truth is much stranger than fiction, and viewers were just given a pretty thorough refresher on the facts earlier this year with “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” also on Netflix. While the documentary uses history to build to recordings of Bundy psychoanalyzing himself, “Extremely Wicked” tells but doesn’t show.

The film prioritises drama, skips large chunks of time, and largely ignores the events that made Bundy infamous. In the first 20 minutes, we watch Bundy meet Kendall (1969), see their relationship grow, witness his first arrest in Utah (1975), and join the couple as they shop for a family dog. The latter scene involves the dog barking at Bundy, as if it senses his evil. It ends with a staring contest between man and dog, as Beethoven’s 9th kicks in and laughably transitions the audience to the next scene, in which the couple is back at home listening to classical music.

Extremely Wicked zac efron ted bundyBrian Douglas/NetflixThe film’s tone can fall flat.

The title of the film is inspired by a direct quote from Judge Edward D. Cowart (played by John Malkovich) who presided over the murder trials in Florida, but Bundy’s “extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile” deeds are experienced only through dialogue from law enforcement and inserts of what appears to be archival news footage. After nearly 90 minutes with the man, it isn’t until the very end (after a 10-year leap forward) that we get a quick glimpse of the monster by way of a single photograph.

The bottom line: While Zac Efron steps shows his range, the movie falls short as a whole.

Audiences hoping to see Efron break bad à la Christian Bale in “American Psycho” or Elijah Wood in the 2012 remake of “Maniac” will be disappointed, but those wanting to see him step out of his wheelhouse and show his range in a film that does little to deserve him may find it worth a Sunday watch.

Grade: C+

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile” is available to stream on Netflix and is in select theatres for a limited time.

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