Zac Efron Oozes Charm in ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ ☆☆☆☆

Imagine being the loving and supportive girlfriend of one of the most infamous serial killers? Elizabeth Kloepfer (AKA Liz Kendall) was a single mother and became the girlfriend of Ted Bundy. Initially believing that he was not guilty, she then learned he admitted his guilt before his execution on the electric chair. Kloepfer wrote the 1981 memoir “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy” and it’s that out-of-print tome that serves as the roadmap for the movie “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.”

Bundy was executed on 24 January 1989 (Florida State Prison) when he was 42. Zac Efron is 31. Bundy was 28 when he started his string of 30 murders in 1974  and 32 in 1978. There’s been a lot of discussion about the casting of Efron, but there’s a moment during this movie when it becomes clear why he was the natural choice: He can look shockingly like Bundy.

One might have preferred the star who was once best known for the “High School” musicals stay in lighter fare. Maybe someday there will be a gore-fest musical called “Extreme Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” in the blood-spattering vein of “Sweeney Todd” or “Assassins,” and then, too, Efron would be the natural choice if he’s still looking young enough. Of course, CGI might help here.

Bundy was white, he was clever and seemed like a promising student. The man who wrote and uttered the words that give this movie its title, Judge Edward Cowart (played by John Malkovich in the movie), said as much: “You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer and I would have loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner.” Those are the choices we make.

This isn’t the first film about Ted Bundy. In 1986, Mark Harmon played Bundy in “The Deliberate Stranger.” In 2002, Michael Reilly Burke played him “Ted Bundy.”  Then Billy Campbell was Bundy in the 2003 “The Stranger Beside Me,” based on Ann Rule’s book by the same name. The “Princess Bride” heart throb, Cary Elwes played Bundy in the 2004 “The Riverman” which like the 2008 “The Capture of the Green River Killer”was about Bundy’s interviews that were meant to increase FBI knowledge of Bundy’s  pathology to help better profile the still at-large Green River Killer. According to Wikipedia, the last movie made on Bundy was in 2015 (“Serial Thriller: Angel of Decay”).

“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” begins at the prison with a woeful looking woman in a ruffled russet blouse facing an incarcerated man in prison orange. Glass is between them as well as years and a few murder trials. We flash back to 1969 at a college bar. The young woman is pessimistically tell her friend, Joanna (Angela Sarafyan) that she’s out of place and unlikely to meet anyone there, except there’s a man who’s been staring at her.

Then briefly, we’re back at the present in prison. The woman says, “I didn’t come to catch up, Ted.”  She ask him if he remembers the night that they met.

Flashing back to 1969, again, we hear the 1968 hit, “Crimson and Clover.”

Now I don’t hardly know her
But I think I could love her
Crimson and clover

Try to imagine a time before “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” (2000-2015), “Dexter” (2006-2013), “Criminal Minds” (2005-present) and “Bones” (2005-2017). Serial killers were not much a part of the public consciousness in 1969. That, of course, would change.

Before the killings we know about, Bundy began a relationship with Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) and her young daughter, Molly. Liz, used to men being turned off by her single-mother-dom, is charmed by Bundy’s acceptance of Molly and his willingness to make breakfast. There is something seductively charming about Efron’s Bundy in a bright yellow print apron.  She was the downtrodden Cinderella, waiting to be saved. The murders don’t come to light until five years later, in 1974, with a spread between Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado and Idaho.

Bundy is eventually caught and tried in Utah. When Liz asks, he has a handy explanation for everything and that not a moment of hesitation or doubt. Then he smiles, asking for Liz to. believe and she does, but she’s also conflicted and plagued by what seems like doubt.

Just before he is found guilty in Utah, we see Liz and him in a carnal embrace. One can imagine Liz believing his promise that “it would only be just us.”

If Bundy is hiding something, so is Liz, despite questions from Joanna and her concerned co-worker, Jerry (Haley Joel Osment).

While Liz is working at the University Medical Division, she gets a call–not from Seattle, but from Colorado. Imprisoned in Utah, Bundy is baited and slips into extradition to Colorado.  The police in Colorado think they are clever, but while in their custody, Bundy briefly escapes. The suggestion made by the soundtrack is not desperation, but love.

Michael Werwie’s script doesn’t dip into the grotesqueness of the murders, the bodies or the necrophilia. We do see Bundy, dressed nattily. He’s a bit of a strutting peacock in court with his bow ties. He plays to the television cameras and his female audience. When the Florida prosecutor (Jim Parsons) reads the injuries of the murder victims at the beginning of the trial, we don’t see the gore, we see Liz’s face as she listens to the trial on her television, on the other side of the country.

We hear his explanations that become increasingly implausible for a troubled Liz but are enough to convince another woman, Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), to move to another state and marry Bundy. If Liz was Cinderella, then Carole is the heroine of a gothic novel, saving an innocent man. Liz’s real Prince Charming might have been right in front of her, being friend-zoned (Jerry).

What we don’t see if what made Liz doubt Bundy enough to report him on a call line. And yet, that’s okay because we see why he inspired a gaggle of gals to flock to the courtroom. They are waiting to save a handsome man, just like in romance novels. We’re used to our villains being easily identifiable, with scars or twisted bodies or unpleasant faces. This isn’t what we see here in Extreme Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” We see the movie played out as the innocent man falsely accused and that rumbles in the back of our mind, colliding against the facts as we know them. Bundy and his trials helped shatter the American consciousness. Innocence was being lost. Bundy was one of several serial killers active during the 1970s in the US: John Wayne Gacy (1972-1978), Patrick Kearney (1965-1977), William Bonin (1979-1980), Carroll Cole (1948-1980), Carl Watts (1974-1982), Vaughn Greenwood (1974-1972), Arthur Shawcross (1972-1989), Edmund Kamper (1964-1973), Angelo Buono Jr. (1977-1979), Roger Dale Stafford (1974-1978), Joseph James DeAngelo (1979-1986) and Lorenzo Gilyard (1977-1993). That’s not a complete list, but notable enough.

Bundy might have stayed under the radar is his victims were black women or prostitutes. In Florida, he targeted young white women who were members of a sorority. Bundy in person played against our stereotype of evil, of the deranged murderer, of the loser rapist. Werwei’s script presents the prince that man women are looking for, that fairytales and romance novels teach women to seek out and director Joe Berlinger keeps that fantasy alive, compartmentalizing the prince from the killer. Berlinger seems to drop hints–when Bundy’s smile lasts too long, or his eyes are a bit too glassy, but that likely plays into what the viewer knows going into this movie. Imagine then a world before serial killers broke into the national consciousness. Imagine watching this movie without any prior knowledge of Bundy.

Both this and the Bundy documentary, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” should be essential viewing for all women, especially before they go off to college. Perhaps then they will think twice about leaving doors and windows unlocked and trusting good looking strangers.

We can’t always know evil when we see it, but we can take precautions against it.

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