It’s safe to say that making a film about the life of infamous serial killer and rapist Ted Bundy was never going to be uncontroversial. But in the midst of the current true crime entertainment boom, the strength of the reaction against Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile following its first trailer and Sundance premiere seems more surprising.
When we’ve decided that true crime programmes like American Crime Story and Making a Murderer are not only acceptable but great television, and when most people have made peace with the moral ambiguities of podcasts like Serial and docuseries like Amanda Knox, what did Extremely Wicked apparently get so wrong?
Having watched the trailer and read the first critic reviews, there’s been no indication that there’s a major flaw that tips the film over the line of horrified fascination into glorification of Bundy. But there doesn’t have to be; when you’re trying to make entertainment based on a man who’s committed violent and sexual crimes as bleak as Bundy’s, the stakes are so much higher on virtually every creative front.
The first trailer is guilty of several slip-ups that wouldn’t amount to much if this was almost any other biopic; the worst of these is deploying the perspective of Bundy’s girlfriend Elizabeth, played by Lily Collins. A similar strategy was successful for 2017’s My Friend Dahmer, transforming a film that could have been gratuitous into a left-field portrait of a man looking askance at his adolescent friendship with a boy who would one day become one of America’s most brutal serial killers.
Unfortunately, Extremely Wicked doesn’t pull off the same trick with its preview. Elizabeth’s perspective reads too obviously as a tactic to pre-empt accusations of glamourization. Given the film’s content, it’s easy to understand the impulse to centre the character of a woman who Bundy didn’t maim or kill. The trouble is, it’s poorly executed – I’d struggle to identify a single personality trait of Collins’ Elizabeth, even after re-watching several times, because she’s not featured as a character so much as activated as a shield. If the trailer is an accurate representation of the film, the camera can’t wait to slide away from her and find its way back to Bundy, and it shows.
In this context, even the choice to cast Zac Efron as Ted Bundy reads as a wink and a nod in the wrong direction. He’s shown breaking the fourth wall to smirk at the camera, removing his shirt unnecessarily and basking in the attention of paparazzi. It comes across as an unfortunate and too-knowing comparison between the actor’s status as a one-time teen heartthrob and the obsessive attraction Bundy held for his group of ardent female followers, many of whom continued to support him even after his confession.
It’s fine for an actor to portray a killer who has been recognised in popular culture as a handsome, charming sociopath – but the film’s advertising has chosen to try and bring the audience along with Bundy’s charm, and they’ve relied on sexuality to do it. It’s an unsettling decision, not least because it doesn’t question why Bundy has acquired this enduring reputation. As others have been quick to point out, his ability to evade capture for so long speaks more to his social privileges than any intellect or guile he might have possessed.
This doesn’t mean that a film about Ted Bundy should never be made – or even that it would be impossible to produce a good film about his crimes. Despite what true crime’s biggest detractors believe, the desire to make art exploring brutal murder isn’t the product of some kind of modern malaise, or a social-media driven desire to edit and document an altered version of reality.
Well-known murder cases have inspired public entertainment for centuries. Pamphlets exposing the gory details of real murders, some featuring poetry and puns, were published in sixteenth century England. Jack the Ripper tours are still running in East London, 130 years on from the unsolved murders that made the mystery killer notorious. The musical Chicago was developed from a satirical play by journalist Maurine Watkins, who based her characters on identifiable criminals she encountered on the crime beat at Cook County Jail in the 1920s.
True crime may have undergone a revival over the last five years, but it’s no grimmer than it’s always been. Attitudes have changed, but the slew of new murderer-inspired entertainment hasn’t so far resulted in a race to the bottom on gore or outrageousness. The intense debate over Extremely Wicked shows that there doesn’t have to be.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to matter whether the film is better than its trailer suggests. It’s almost guaranteed that it will reach a wider audience thanks to its early controversy, and it’ll be interesting to see where promotion for true crime entertainment goes from here. If a discomfiting buzz of Twitter accounts arguing about whether or not you’re allowed to find Ted Bundy hot proves effective advertising, there’s a strong incentive to take the argument that fictionalising serial killers is inherently glamourising and lean straight into it.