Netflix's Ted Bundy movie isn't really about the notorious serial killer at all.


If you’ve spent any sort of time on the internet in the past few months, you’ve no doubt heard about Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile — globally referred to as “that new Netflix movie starring High School Musical heartthrob Zac Efron as infamous ‘70s serial killer Ted Bundy.”

The trailers alone generated think-pieces on everything from the glorification of murder to having crushes on actors who play serial killers — but the film itself isn’t an ode to Bundy’s rap sheet or Efron’s eight-pack. In fact, the story doesn’t belong to either the killer or the actor who plays him: Wicked is Elizabeth Kloepfer’s tale to tell.

Kloepfer (who wrote under the pseudonym Elizabeth Kendall and appears as Liz Kendall in the film), Bundy’s girlfriend of six years, published a book in 1981 about her relationship with him: The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.

Like many of Bundy’s victims, Kloepfer was blindsided by the overt charm of the handsome aspiring lawyer she met at a Seattle bar in 1969. And even as the murder charges stacked up and the trial began, she found it difficult to reconcile the man she knew with the portrait of a killer that the prosecution painted in court.

It’s through the lens of Kendall, played with artful nuance by Lily Collins, that we view Bundy’s story, told in bulk during his murder trials. But it's also through Kendall — not Efron's Bundy — that the most powerful story of human nature and the mind are revealed.

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Credit: Brian Douglas

Much of the criticism of the film stems from the fact that though Bundy's acts are described in the film, they don't actually play out on screen. Some argued that the avoidance of explicit violence was a way of glossing over the depravity of Bundy’s crimes.

But this PG-13 approach to a story involving the 20th century’s most notorious serial killer is ultimately both a blessing and a curse for the film. Viewers seeking a visceral deep-dive into Bundy’s history will be disappointed, as will Efron fans hoping this is the role that will finally allow the actor to show his depth of ability.

The silver-lining, however, is Kloepfer’s story and Collins’s performance, which guide the film from beginning to end despite the perception generated by an Efron-heavy marketing campaign.

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Credit: Brian Douglas

In preparation for the film, Kloepfer met with Collins, sharing personal photo albums, love letters, and other artifacts from her life with Ted. “Some of the notes were so passionately written in a drunken rage that they were embossed in the paper,” Collins revealed during a post-screening Q&A on Thursday. “I could feel the emotion and I could feel the tension — I wanted to bring that to the role,” she explained.

In order to get into the head of Kloepfer at the time of the trial, Collins avoided materials related to Bundy’s murders, but despite her avoidance she said that during her prep she was “visited” by images that seemed to be related to his victims.

She told the Guardian she’d wake up every morning at 3:05 a.m. “by flashes of images, like the aftermath of a struggle.”

“I discovered that 3am is the time when the veil between the realms is the thinnest and one can be visited,” she explained.

“These images that I was woken up to ended up being very similar to ones I ended up seeing after filming,” Collins told InStyle. “I felt protected and nurtured, I didn’t feel scared. I think I was just getting messages of support — so whether that was from his victims or not, I did feel visited and I felt supported. I think there are many stories that needed to be told with this story, and I think we’re paying tribute to them.”

For Haley Joel Osment, who plays Liz’s co-worker-turned-boyfriend Jerry, he saw the story as a cautionary tale with all-too-relevant parallels to modern society.

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Credit: Brian Douglas

“Liz was uncertain for a long time whether to believe the court case or to believe the person she was sleeping in a bed with for years and years and years, and that was due to Bundy’s ability to use all the tricks at his disposal to seem like an upstanding guy and to make it seem like the world was out to get him and he was the victim," Osment told InStyle. "I think that’s something we see in all sides of society today, that those sort of people who refuse to deviate from their bald-faced lies seem to get really far in society … ”

To Osment’s point, the story is told in such a way that, at first, the viewer begins to question the concrete: whether Bundy really was guilty. “Could it all have been a big misunderstanding?” I began to ask myself during the screening. Like Collins’s Kendall, the audience, too, gets played by the master manipulator at its helm.

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Credit: Brian Douglas

That being said, it’s Kendall’s more than a decade-long journey from wide-eyed disbelief to guilt-ridden acceptance that provides the film with its most powerful scene set in the weeks ahead of Bundy’s execution. She, alone, brings Wicked to the place we expected to visit all along: the depths of the human psyche.

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Credit: Brian Douglas

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is currently streaming on Netflix.