This January, Netflix sparked controversy with its docuseries “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” which critics accused of romanticizing the notorious killer of at least 28 women. Apparently undeterred by the criticism, Netflix released a new Bundy biopic by “Conversations with a Killer” director Joe Berlinger on May 3, entitled “Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil and Vile.”
The movie claims to explore a story familiar to true crime fans through a fresh new lens in its adaptation of Liz Kendall’s memoir, “My Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.” Kendall, who dated Bundy during his killing spree in the ’70s and continued to correspond with him throughout his trial, is a testament to Bundy’s extraordinary charm. Yet many viewers — myself included — felt that “Extremely Wicked” was too preoccupied with Bundy’s charisma and not concerned enough with the consequences of his depraved actions on Kendall, not to mention his many victims and their families.
Maybe the most controversial aspect of the film has been the casting of Zac Efron — best known for playing teen heartthrob Troy Bolton in “High School Musical” — as Bundy. While many have argued that this casting decision only contributes to the romanticization of Efron’s character, I have to side with the director on this one. Efron’s good looks and charming demeanor give us a sense of what drew many young women to Bundy in the ’70s. Actually, Efron is excellent in the film and does a decent Bundy impression to boot, making me excited to see what he does with more serious roles in the future.
Though Efron is given more to work with, Lily Collins (“To the Bone”) gives a remarkably restrained yet emotionally resonant performance as Kendall, though her character is forced into a secondary role by a script that seems just as enamored with Bundy as Kendall herself. Other stand-out performances include the prolific John Malkovich (“In the Line of Fire”) as sardonic judge Edward Cowart and an unrecognizable Kaya Scodelario (“Skins”) as Carole Ann Boone, who falls in love with and later marries Bundy during his trial.
Even beyond the excellent cast, there is plenty to praise in “Extremely Wicked”. The movie boasts an excellent soundtrack, not to mention some delightful ’70s fashion, including a replica of the infamous baby blue suit and bowtie Bundy wore during his trial. I also enjoyed the integration of vintage footage, as well as scenes that reenacted iconic moments from the trial. The film works well as a period piece while remaining timeless.
With so much going for it, I was disappointed to see that “Extremely Wicked” fails when it comes to plot. The first half of the movie introduces us to Liz Kendall, a single mom working as a secretary who catches the eye of Ted Bundy at a college bar, and follows their whirlwind romance. It is disconcerting to watch Bundy sporting an apron and making breakfast or playing with Kendall’s young daughter, but maybe not in the way the movie intended. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop — for Kendall to begin to notice that something is not quite right about her boyfriend. Instead, she alternates between adoration for Bundy and frustration with his circumstances for the majority of the film, even as he is convicted of murder, leaving us with a film lacking in tension and a protagonist with little real agency.
The first half of the movie drags, but the second half takes an entirely different approach, sidelining Kendall to focus on the theatrical, ripped-from-the-headlines court proceedings of the Bundy case. Efron and Malkovich steal the show in their respective roles, while Collins’ character arc is reduced to a much less interesting subplot. There came a point when I had to wonder: why bother positioning Liz Kendall as the main character when the most dynamic scenes do not feature her at all?
“My Phantom Prince” tells the true and fascinating story of a woman who was gaslit by her serial killer boyfriend for years, slowly becoming aware of his inner nature. While I respect Berlinger’s decision to avoid sensationalizing violence, the film fails to remind us that Efron’s charming portrayal of Bundy is nothing more than a facade. Because we never see Bundy committing an act of violence, we continue to share in Kendall’s delusion. Berlinger’s failure to outrightly condemn Bundy is an irresponsible act that perpetuates the tendency of true crime to romanticize serial killers. While I have no reason to believe this was his intention, it is clear that he does not go far enough to avoid falling into this all-too-common pitfall.
There is a dark, thrilling story to be told that both empowers Liz Kendall and rightly portrays Ted Bundy as a monster. This is not the story “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” chooses to tell — instead, it settles for a mediocre plot barely salvaged by a strong cast.