Saturday, May 4, 2019


(US - 2019)

Directed by Joe Berlinger. Written by Michael Werwie. Cast: Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Kaya Scodelario, John Malkovich, Jim Parsons, Jeffrey Donovan, Angela Sarafyan, Dylan Baker, Brian Geraghty, Terry Kinney, Haley Joel Osment, James Hetfield, Grace Victoria Cox, Morgan Pyle, Ken Strunk, Justin McCombs, Ryan Wesley Gilreath, Tess Talbot, Forba Shepherd (R, 110 mins)

Infamous serial killer Ted Bundy has been the subject of numerous true crime books, nearly a dozen movies, and even more TV documentaries. The 1986 NBC TV-movie THE DELIBERATE STRANGER capped off of a banner year for Mark Harmon, who received critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination for his performance as Bundy on top of being named that year's Sexiest Man Alive by People. Until then, the former college football star was known as a competent TV actor who was gaining some momentum on ST. ELSEWHERE as lothario Dr. Bobby Caldwell, but playing Ted Bundy unquestionably opened some doors for him and turned him into a big-screen headliner for a couple of years before returning to journeyman duty on TV, eventually finding his career role on the still-running CBS series NCIS. With his charm and good looks, Harmon was perfect casting for a truly reprehensible serial killer who didn't fit the stereotype, one of the main reasons Bundy remains such a popular topic today. The same degree of perfect casting applies to Zac Efron, who made his name as a teen superstar with Disney's incredibly popular HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL franchise. As the years have gone on, Efron has found steady work in comedies both good (NEIGHBORS) and godawful (DIRTY GRANDPA), and his attempts to branch out and be taken seriously have yielded results both interesting (ME AND ORSON WELLES) and woefully misbegotten (THE PAPERBOY). With an absurd panini beard and about ten mintues of screen time, Efron managed to steal this year's earlier THE BEACH BUM from both Matthew McConaughey and Snoop Dogg, and in playing Ted Bundy in the Netflix original film EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE (a verbatim description of Bundy used by the judge who sentenced him to die in the Florida electric chair), Efron uses his persona to chilling effectiveness in a performance that matches Harmon's, but through no fault of his, the film only works in fits and starts.

That's largely due to the approach taken by director Joe Berlinger, helming his first narrative feature since 2000's little-loved BOOK OF SHADOWS: BLAIR WITCH 2. Best known for his documentaries like the PARADISE LOST trilogy detailing the saga of the West Memphis Three, and Metallica's SOME KIND OF MONSTER, Berlinger also directed this year's earlier Netflix documentary series  CONVERSATIONS WITH A KILLER: THE TED BUNDY TAPES. A companion piece of sorts, EXTREMELY WICKED is based on the memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall, who was romantically involved with Bundy for several years until his initial incarceration in the mid-1970s. Played here by Lily Collins, Liz Kloepfer (her maiden name) is a college student and single mom when she meets Bundy in a Seattle bar in 1969. They instantly hit it off and the film cuts to 1974, with both of them pursuing law degrees and Ted a loving father figure to Liz's daughter Molly. They maintain a long-distance relationship while Bundy is in law school in Utah, where he's picked up as a suspect in a kidnapping and eventually accused of the crime. He keeps giving Liz flimsy excuses about being set up, but when an Aspen, CO detective (Terry Kinney) starts asking questions and contacting Liz, it sets off a chain reaction of investigators in several states gradually realizing that they're all pursuing the same suspect. Despite endlessly proclaiming his innocence, it looks so dire for Bundy that even his own lawyer (Jeffrey Donovan) bails on him with an insincere "Good luck."

EXTREMELY WICKED ostensibly looks at the Bundy story from Liz Kloepfer's point-of-view, but Berlinger sort-of drops the ball on that angle, starting with a rapid jump from 1969 to 1974. We don't see much of the foundation of her relationship with Bundy, or why she sticks with him despite all the evidence against him, and the film ultimately resorts delaying a reveal in the story until it can make a dramatic impact, except that it doesn't really land. Berlinger obviously knows Efron-as-Bundy is the selling point here, so it doesn't take long to shift to that focus, whether it's his two escapes from custody (one from a courthouse and the other from an Aspen jail) and his circus of a trial in Florida (where he fled after Aspen), when he fires his public defender (Brian Geraghty) and represents himself, with prison groupies forming a Bundy fan club in the courtroom, cheering him on and often describing him as "dreamy" and admitting to reporters that they fantasize about him. Exploring that bizarre phenomenon (known as hybristophilia, with Bundy arguably the most prominent example) might've been a more interesting subject for Berlinger to explore, especially when it comes to the pathetic Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), a former co-worker of Bundy's in Seattle who follows him to Utah and eventually to Florida, all in the hopes of getting him to fall in love with her.

We never see any of Bundy's killings, but with his tangles with the law and his antics in the courtroom where he often spars with the sardonically folksy judge (John Malkovich) and the incredulous prosecutor (Jim Parsons), all we're left with concerning Liz is her increasing dependence on booze and a hesitant relationship with her nice-guy co-worker Jerry (Haley Joel Osment), who keeps unsuccessfully trying to get her to forget Bundy and move on. This only leads to cliches, like the inevitable scene of Liz gathering all of her empty liquor bottles and throwing them in a trash can, and Berlinger resorting to Scorsese needle-drops like Bundy being hauled out of court to Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Lucky Man," and escaping from the Aspen courthouse from a second-story window to The Box Tops' "The Letter." EXTREMELY WICKED is a serial killer thriller that wants to be different, realizes there's not enough there for what it wants to do, then tries to have it both ways, which only results in an uneven structure and a lack of focus. In other words, it's flawed but not without interest, thanks mostly to a revelatory performance by Efron and some solid supporting work from the cast, particularly Scodelario, who's good enough here that you wish the story was being told from her POV.

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