Netflix's “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” currently in wide release in Israel, is a singular case in which a filmmaker creates a documentary series and in parallel directs a feature film dealing with the protagonist of that series, a serial killer. Two cardinal questions arise from viewing the feature film: Why did the skilled and esteemed documentarist Joe Berlinger take this unusual step? And in what measure does the feature film add to the documentary series and perhaps even cast it in a new, complementary light? There are no easy answers to these questions, but the project itself generates curiosity.
Berlinger’s documentary work is diverse, but his best-known films deal with crimes that jolted America; some see him as having laid the foundations for the ultra-popular “true crime” genre. Among his works are a four-part series dealing with the murder of the Clutter family, which was the basis for Truman Capote’s book “In Cold Blood.” Another is a seven-part series investigating the murder of Jessica Chambers, 19, who in 2014 was found burning next to her car and later died. His most acclaimed work is “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” (1996; co-director, Bruce Sinofsky), about three teenagers from Memphis who were accused of murdering boys of eight in 1993. The film depicts the dubious trial procedure, and in fact, in 2011 the three were released, after spending 18 years in prison. (Berlinger and Sinofsky made two sequels to the first film, in 2000 and in 2011.)
The four-part series about Ted Bundy, “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” (premiere on Netflix, 2019), is based on interviews with the serial killer made shortly before his execution in 1989. It’s not surprising that Berlinger was drawn to the figure of Ted Bundy. Between 1974 and 1978, Bundy murdered and raped – in some cases after their death – more than 30 young woman, most of them students. He became the most famous serial killer in American history, and during his trial was idolized by girls who were attracted by his appearance and conduct, as though he were a rock star. In marked contrast, the trial judge, described Bundy as “extremely wicked, shockingly evil and vile” – a description that became the picture’s title.
This is Berlinger’s second feature film, following “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” (2000). That was a sequel to “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, which became a social and cultural phenomenon and a huge commercial success. Berlinger’s film, which is totally different in style from its predecessor, was panned by critics and audiences, but even so, it made money owing to its low budget ($15 million). “Book of Shadows” tells the story of a group of people who visit the area where the protagonists of the earlier movie shot their footage before being terrorized and vanishing, and who are also imperiled by supernatural forces.
Berlinger’s aim was to show the process by which mass hysteria arises – the same phenomenon that marked the period in which Bundy committed his murders, in Utah, Colorado and elsewhere – and was also seen during his trial. Television coverage of the proceedings – it was the first trial in which television cameras were allowed into the courtroom – contributed to Bundy’s becoming a culture hero. The effect was only heightened when Bundy, who had been a law student, fired his lawyer and mounted his defense by himself, always immaculately dressed and exhibiting the charisma that was his hallmark.
In the new feature film, mass hysteria is in evidence only briefly, and for good reason, as Berlinger is up to something different here. If the television series seeks to penetrate Bundy’s mind and consciousness – on the premise that the murderer’s evasiveness will reveal as much as his possible responsiveness – this time, Berlinger wants only to show. And this amid a narrative lacuna that bears an almost radical aspect: With the exception of a brief flash toward the end of the film, we are not witness to any of Bundy’s murders; we see only some of his victims in police photographs. In other words, Berlinger is not trying to understand or provide motives for what Bundy did. And if a few of the individuals involved in the investigation analyze the character of the serial killer for us, their explanations strike us above all as clichés whose connection to Bundy’s “truth” – if any such truth can in fact be discerned and defined – is patently tenuous.
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The film’s statement that it is impossible to fathom a person’s actions, whether they are extreme and appalling or not, is joined by another existential assertion about human consciousness, namely the inability to know a person and predict his actions. The movie is based on Elizabeth Kendall’s book “The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy.” Kendall, who even considered marrying Bundy, describes their relationship before she discovered who the person living by her side was.
In the film, Liz is a young woman of delicate features whose character seems fragile. A single mother who is raising a young daughter and holds a secretarial job, she meets Bundy in a bar, where he brings his charm to bear on her with characteristic effectiveness. The two start living together; one of the traits that ties Liz to Bundy is the warm relationship he develops with her daughter. The viewer asks himself why Bundy stays with this woman, who seems to be the very prototype of the young women he preys upon. But the film doesn’t address either this question or a host of other puzzles that are raised but left unanswered.
In the first part of the picture, Liz (Lily Collins) is as much the focal point as Bundy (Zac Efron). However, after Bundy’s arrest, another woman enters the story. Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario) has been obsessively in love with Bundy for years. She relocates to the cities where his trial takes place, and after Liz terminates her relationship with him, Carol becomes the “love of his life,” marries him and becomes pregnant by him. As with Bundy, the film makes no effort to decipher Carol, either. Her story is simply shown. At the same time, a feeling is created to the effect that a certain unfillable void exists in her and in her partner.
“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is not directed very skillfully. One problem is that Berlinger uses too many songs on the soundtrack, to represent the period of the narrative. Still, the film works as a kind of existential allegory centering on a monster who exudes charisma. Efron, who has long since shed the youth idol status he possessed at the start of his career and has become an interesting actor, is extremely impressive as Ted Bundy, revealing the killer’s different faces as though from a distance of intimacy, and Collins and Scodelario are also very good. Above all, Berlinger’s film is a kind of meditation on the television series, and at its best achieves an abstract philosophical essence. In that sense, at least, it’s an intriguing work of cinema.