With the recent uptick in true crime entertainment, from TV shows to podcasts, Joe Berlinger seemed to be riding the Ted Bundy train, when he released The Ted Bundy Tapes and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile in close succession. But unlike The Ted Bundy Tapes, Extremely Wicked was not met with as many roaring reviews as the Bundy Tapes, even though the main criticism for the film came exclusively from the trailer. Berlinger was accused of glorifying the serial killer, who killed over 30 women over a period of 4 years, spanning from 1974-1978.
Most of the backlash stemmed from the upbeat nature of the trailer, which admittedly was slightly off, tonally, but judging an entire film on the basis of its trailer isn’t exactly very “on”, because it seemed to almost romanticise murder and murderers.
Extremely Wicked doesn’t glorify Bundy, nor does it have gratuitous violence. It remains extremely respectful towards the victims because it is from the perspective of a victim. The film is based on the accounts from Elizabeth Kendall’s book The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy. Kendall (real name Kloepfer) was in a relationship with Bundy during the time he was on his murder rampage. Not only has the film based on her book, but she was present during most of the filming to advise and support the cast and crew. She refused to watch the film itself, which is understandable but helped Berlinger with the process of making the film, as much as she could.
The film is meant to be a romantic thriller, because it’s from the perspective of someone who was romantically involved with him, and knew him as nothing but the charming, handsome man that she was in a long term relationship with, someone she raises her daughter with. It is about the duality of a psychopath’s mind and how easy it was for Bundy to convince people that he was just an upstanding citizen.
In fact, Berlinger himself said “This is really the point of the film: we want to think that a serial killer is some social outcast, some misfit, some weird- looking guy who just can’t fit in and you can spot him a mile away. That gives us the false comfort that we can avoid the fate of becoming a victim, but Bundy was the exact opposite. He was well integrated into society, he had friends who believed in him.”
The choice of casting Zac Efron was made because a certain demographic had learnt to love him and trust him, he was still the lovable jock from High School Musical that just wanted to sing and dance, how could someone like him possibly do anything wrong? The same was true with Bundy. He was a normal, charismatic law student, that people actually liked. They liked him up to the point that his fellow church-goers and young girls around the country (very similar to the ones murdered, ironically) would gather outside the courthouse to show their support for him, during his trial. People refused to believe he could have done something wrong because he seemed “like one of us”.
When Bundy was sentenced to the electric chair in 1979, as the police officers were escorting Ted out of the courtroom, the judge went out of his way to say “You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer, I would have loved to have you practice in front of me. But you went the other way, partner.” That is how much they liked him.
It’s easy to create a fictional bad guy character, to give him motive and backstory, to make him seem likeable and justify his actions, but to make a real person, that did terrible things to a lot of people relatable in the ways that Bundy was, is extremely difficult. He had a family that he loved and cared for, he had a life, hell he even helped people when he worked at a suicide prevention hotline in 1971, alongside Ann Rule, who went on to write the book The Stranger Beside Me. It’s hard to fathom that someone that seems as regular on the surface as Bundy, could commit as many atrocities as he did.
Call or what you may, Extremely Wicked was made to serve as a cautionary tale. Not only about serial killers and that murderous psychopaths don’t stand out of crowds, but to drive the point of “killers are not only produced, but also enabled by the society in which they exist”, the latter being especially true in the case of Bundy, and all Berlinger did was merely point a spotlight at it.