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Movie review: A ‘Shockingly Evil’ Ted Bundy film, made palatable by additions (Zac Efron) and omissions (gore)

“EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE” — 3 stars — Zac Efron, Lily Collins, Haley Joel Osment, Angela Sarafyan, Jim Parsons, John Malkovich, Morgan Pyle; either PG-13 or R for thematic elements; running time: 108 minutes

Editor's note: This review originally ran in January 2019 as part of the Deseret News' 2019 Sundance Film Festival coverage. The film was released on Netflix and in select theaters nationwide May 3.

PARK CITY — Zac Efron is, to borrow a phrase from Derek Zoolander, really, really, really ridiculously good looking.

Much better looking than the somewhat handsome Ted Bundy, whom Efron plays in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” the highly anticipated film which premiered at Park City’s Sundance Film Festival Saturday night. When news broke about Efron’s casting, buzz followed — Efron has played the heel before, but never an all-out villain. And when it comes to real-life villains, Bundy is about the worst there is: Days before his execution, Bundy confessed to murdering 30 women, including some here in Utah.

In peoples’ minds, Efron seemed a good fit aesthetically. He kind of looks like Bundy, right?

As the closing credits of “Extremely Wicked” roll, viewers see actual interview and courtroom footage of Bundy — scenes recreated by Efron and co. earlier in the film. It isn’t until then that you realize how different these two men actually look. Bundy was no Zac Efron.

Movie stars out-good-looking the folks they play onscreen is standard. In the context of “Extremely Wicked,” this incongruity becomes a deft cinematic tool. The film isn’t really about the horrible things Bundy did — we’re never shown the actual murders, and almost none of his pre-murder actions. Rather, “Extremely Wicked” is about how those who loved Bundy perceived him — how they became enraptured by his charm, believed his deception and, in time, painfully untangled themselves from it. And that is a much different kind of film than this one’s gruesome title suggests.

Lily Collins plays Elizabeth Kloepfer, Bundy’s longtime girlfriend. They meet at a bar in 1969. She takes him home, where her young daughter is fast asleep. He’s unfazed by her single mom status. She lets him stay overnight. He makes breakfast for everyone while wearing Liz’s frilly apron. (So secure in his masculinity, this Bundy is.)

While Efron’s Ted Bundy is charismatic and self-assured, Collins’ Kloepfer is beautifully delicate with underlying tenacity. Liz has strength, no doubt, but she uses all of it to protect her perception of Bundy and the fairytale memory of their courtship.

So yes, Efron is far better looking than the actual Bundy. But in the film, not only does the actor's good looks work, they help. Liz perceives Bundy as the ultimate Prince Charming, and you empathize with her, because, just look at that guy. Maybe she really did perceive Bundy to be that irresistible.

At first, the viewers’ own foreknowledge looms ominously over every scene. Director Joe Berlinger, best-known as a documentarian, and screenwriter Michael Werwie foster our bewilderment: “GET OUT OF THERE, LIZ!” we all scream internally whenever Efron says something romantic. We know Bundy is guilty, which tricks us into thinking his guilt was never in question.

Collectively, though, audiences have selective memory, just like Liz. In reality, the evidence that convicted Bundy — bite marks on his victims, matched to photos of his teeth — rely on questionable science that likely wouldn’t hold up in a current court of law. Bundy’s mystique has grown and solidified over the past 40 years, so much that it’s easy to forget how shaky his conviction was. Liz was blinded by her image of Bundy, and so are we. We just reached opposite conclusions.

Make no mistake, the film doesn’t sympathize Bundy or imply his innocence. It just omits scenes of his actual murders. In theory, maybe that omission softens Bundy more than he deserves. But in practice, it might be a storytelling necessity here.

If you want all the "wicked" details, watch “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes,” a docu-series which just dropped on Netflix (which Berlinger also directed). “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” is a more palatable examination of an otherwise unpalatable subject — thanks to a strong script, clear direction and convincing performances, and not just because Zac Efron is really, really, really ridiculously good looking.

Rating explained: “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” will likely be rated R, possibly PG-13, for its subject matter. There is almost no gore or foul language, but Efron’s bare butt is shown once during a prison scene. There is also a scene of brief consensual sex between Bundy and Carole Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario), though it doesn’t contain nudity.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly identified Ted Bundy's ex-girlfriend as Liz Kendall. Her real name is Elizabeth Kloepfer — Elizabeth Kendall was Kloepfer's pen name in her memoir, "The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy."