Zac Efron, swoon. Close your eyes and I bet you can still remember how you felt watching him sing and dance to “Get’Cha Head in the Game” for the first time in the original High School Musical back in 2006. Thirteen years later, the actor is once again putting his twinkling blue eyes and magnetic smile to use . . .. in the most chilling and alarming way possible.
In perhaps the most inspired casting choice of the year, the onetime teen heartthrob is taking on serial killer Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The same monster who savagely killed at least 30 young women in a span of 10 years. You may think that Efron is playing against type, but not really: Bundy, in fact, is still notorious 30 years after his death-by-electric chair because he presented himself as a good-looking and well-spoken charmer. Efron takes the opportunity and runs with it. He’s never been better. The film? Not as strong.
Extremely Wicked Shocking Evil and Vile — that mouthful of a title derives from a judge’s description of Bundy during his sentencing — is not so much an insightful examination about how a college-educated man turns into a psychopath as much as it a peculiar relationship tale between a skilled liar and his too-trusting single mom girlfriend. Cut right to 1974, when a 20-something Bundy meets Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins) near the jukebox in a Washington state dive bar. He’s sweet and loving and attentive and doesn’t ever cross physical boundaries. They begin a long-term relationship and he moves in. He’s great with her young daughter.
No wonder when cops knock on the door and arrest him for attempted murder, Liz is convinced they have the wrong man. Never mind that he matches the physical description of a man wearing a sling driving a Volkswagen Beetle witnessed near the crime scenes. Never mind that he often went away for long stretches at night. It’s just not feasible that this man who puts on an apron and makes waffles for her daughter could be so vicious.
We never see Bundy’s crimes and only get fleeting glimpses of his inner-demon toward the end. This could be a tasteful decision on the part of director Joe Berlinger — he also helmed that tedious four-part Netflix Bundy doc — so the slayings aren’t reenacted for twisted melodramatic purposes and out of respect for the victims’ families. But I believe it’s a strange use of suspense. You know, just in case anyone chooses to believe his innocence pleas. Or empathizes with Liz as she stands by her man, only to eventually reconsider her feelings. Recap: Bundy confessed to all the crimes back in the 1980s. This isn’t O.J. Simpson. We all know he did it.
The problem with not showing the horrors is that Efron’s Bundy comes off extremely and shockingly appealing. Dealing with all the bureaucratic police officers and lawyers, dare I say he’s almost someone worth rooting for. This is where the film becomes painfully misguided as it morphs into a strange mix of hapless comedy and wacky courtroom drama with Bundy as the hero. During its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, audiences laughed as Bundy brazenly jumps out of a courtroom window and escapes. He’s caught, then loses enough weight to escape out of his prison cell. He heads to Florida and gets caught again. Too bad! What Berlinger doesn’t show is that Bundy broke into a Florida State University sorority house in the middle of the night and beat girls over the head with log and bit them while they were sleeping.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile does feature some terrific performances. Collins plays Liz like a naïve, rather delicate cipher, which makes her third-act maturation into a steely, take-no-s—t woman so so so satisfying. The great John Malkovich also stands out as the folksy Florida judge presiding over Bundy’s trial. He refers to Bundy as “partner” but is most definitely not on his side. But this movie belongs to Efron and his charm offensive. Never did I imagine he could put such a sinister spin on all that charisma. RIP, Troy Bolton.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile opens in select theaters and is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, May 3