Joe Bertlinger’s Ted Bundy biopic, released to Sky Cinema on Friday, seemed to be just one more of the latest string of films blatantly cashing in on some of the most horrific series of murders in recent memory. Starring Zac Efron, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile had stirred up controversy upon its announcement for its very concept — fictionalising the attacks of an already notorious serial killer, with little compassion or attention given to the victims of the horrific tragedies. Whether these accusations hold up now that the film has been released, is up for debate. How accurate is Efron’s depiction of Bundy as a man of overpowering charisma? Is it ethical to convert true crime into fantasy at all, regardless of the way in which it is executed?
Bertlinger has had a 25-year career as a true crime documentarian. His 1996 documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills had a huge impact on the case he was examining, as the film exposed the wrongful conviction of the three teenagers interviewed, eventually helping them with their release from prison. The core message of his films, he says, is that we shouldn’t condemn people based on appearances; it is generally the people you would least expect who might be responsible for murder. Indeed, this formula may work for those who have been wrongfully convicted, but it is exactly this belief — that Bundy was not the kind of person you would expect to be a serial killer — that creates the central flaw in the way in which Bertlinger chose to portray the murderer. This problem was already prominent in the Netflix documentary about Bundy, Conversations With A Killer, also directed and produced by Bertlinger. Conversations falls into the trap of presenting Bundy ashaving the charming magnetism that he played into while in court, as opposed to the cowardly creep who was much less intelligent than he wanted the world to think he was. According to those who knew him, Bundy was a shy, reserved man who was relatively articulate, but hardly a genius. Diane Edwards, his first girlfriend, referred to him as being “pitifully weak” in an interview. His avoiding detection for so long was not due to his own mental acuity, but because of a lack of communication between police across the different states he committed the crimes in. Bundy is not the last person you’d expect to be a serial killer: in fact, his behaviour fits the profile of serial killer pretty accurately. This construction of a fantastical persona is not only an inaccurate rewriting of history, but also harmful to his victims. It encourages the myth of that Bundy had some sort of overwhelming magnetism, a lie which Bundy himself so clearly wanted to cultivate due to the notoriety it brought him. Similarly, despite Bertlinger’s best attempts to hone in on a murderer’s perspective via the material collected by journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, the interviews with Bundy himself revealed very little about what it was that caused him to commit what is believed to have been upwards of 30 brutal murders. Many of his explanations come across as aimless rambles. In the same way, Extremely Wicked’s recounting of the narrative from the perspective of his ex-girlfriend, Liz Kloepfer, fails to grasp the inconvenient mediocrity of Bundy’s true personality. Bertlinger’s argument that anyone can be a serial killer regardless of his outward appearance is effective in some instances. The opening montage effectively highlights the dichotomy between Bundy’s quotidian life with his girlfriend, while a voiceover with a newscast recounts the callous murders of countless women, creating a jarring juxtaposition. Nonetheless, Efron’s ability to convey the charm and charisma he displayed in court leads to his victims becoming mere footnotes. It becomes increasingly infuriating to watch. It is unclear throughout whether he actually committed these crimes. As Sam Adams mentioned in his Slate review of the biopic, “if you wanted to make a movie about a jovial law student named Ted Bundy who was unfairly accused of the most heinous crimes imaginable, you could reuse 90% of the footage without changing a thing.” When the evidence piled against him is so irrefutable, the lack of attention the film gives to these actual crimes makes for an incredibly uneasy viewing experience. Thus, while the biopic remains as factually accurate as it could possibly be, the angle it takes is one which makes it difficult to defend. There are so many aspects of the Ted Bundy case which would make for a fascinating biopic. What made Carole Anne-Boone stand by him during trial, despite all the evidence that was so piled up against him? How much did Bundy benefit from white privilege during his time in court, where the audience would laugh along with his jokes despite the gravity of the case against him? What were the wider implications of Bundy’s conviction, as people started to become aware that serial killers were not a removed danger, but could be living anywhere within society? The fantasy that Bundy possessed some sort of irresistible charm and magnetism, however, is not one of them.