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Complex and Challenging | Paul Reviews EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL, AND VILE

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (Joe Berlinger, 2019)

See the video review here.

Joe Berlinger made his name as the director of a number of utterly superb crime-themed and award-winning documentaries, including Brother’s Keeper in 1992 and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills in 1996. Berlinger’s sojourns into the world of fictional filmmaking have, however, been less impressive: his fictional debut Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows was dire and was overshadowed by the pseudo-documentary short, ‘The Burkittsville 7’, that Berlinger directed to promote the film. Most recently, Berlinger has focused on the crimes of serial killer Ted Bundy, making the documentary series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes for Netflix and accompanying this with a fictional feature film about Bundy, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, which in an inspired piece of stunt casting stars Zac Efron as one of the most heinous of American murderers. Both of these have been released in the year that marks the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution for his crimes.

Plenty of films and television shows have been based on the Bundy case, including the 1986 television movie The Deliberate Stranger, which starred Mark Harmon as Bundy and was made three years before Bundy was executed. Matthew Bright’s much later film about Bundy, titled simply Ted Bundy and released in 2002, starred Michael Reilly Burke as the killer in a performance that seemed clearly influenced by Christian Bale’s role as Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s then-recent film adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho. Berlinger has said that he was making the documentary series, Conversations with a Killer, when he was approached with the script for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile. What drew Berlinger to the material was the fact that Extremely Wicked differs from the previous TV movies and films by focusing on Bundy through the lens of his relationship with his lover Liz Kloepfer, on whose 1981 memoir The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy the script for Extremely Wicked was loosely based.

In doing so, Extremely Wicked deviates from the bulk of serial killer films, including the previous pictures about Bundy, which depict their murderous protagonists as social outcasts. By approaching the story of Bundy in this way, Berlinger’s film shows us the limitations of that stereotype. Bundy was cut from a different cloth, and arguably the reason for the ongoing fascination with him in American culture is the fact that he doesn’t conform easily to the perception that such crimes are committed by misfit loners. Perhaps this explains why some critics in the US have suggested Berlinger’s picture romanticises or ‘humanises’ Bundy, especially through the casting of Efron in the lead role – because the unsettling truth is that Bundy, like all similar criminals, was human. Extremely Wicked takes a complex and challenging approach to the Bundy story, the casting of Efron as Bundy seemingly intended to draw controversy, and Berlinger’s approach to the material is characteristically meticulous.

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