There’s a wrongness about the title – a quote from the judge’s summation of the case against serial killer Ted Bundy – that turns out to be part of the film’s strategy for dealing with its horrific subject matter. It sounds like a pitch for John Waters’ autobiography, titillating but also a little flirtateous, winking at the audience as if to say we’re beyond all that square moral code and willing to embrace harmless transgression. Then there’s Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) – a ‘law student’ well beyond college age who keeps insisting to girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer (Lily Collins) that his arrest and trial for multiple homicides is some sort of bureaucratic blunder, though he also escapes from jail a couple of times only to be picked up again in the suspicious vicinity of the appallingly abused corpses of young women. Bundy, like that other ‘70s egomaniac bogeyman Charles Manson, alienated all lawyers and insisted on conducting his own defence, strutting about the court in a huge floppy bow tie and bantering with the wry judge (John Malkovich) as if in some sort of sit-com.
Director Joe Berlinger has made a run of remarkable true crime documentaries (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost) and essayed the odd fiction film (Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2). The case has been covered in TV movies (The Deliberate Stranger, The Stranger Behind Me) and true crime shockers (Ted Bundy, The Riverman, Bundy: Legacy of Evil) and Berlinger feels no need to depict the murders – using a few shocking details to undercut the killer’s smooth, plausible denials. There has been some controversy about casting heart throb Efron as Bundy, who was reasonably presentable and presumably persuasive but whose ‘hotness’ has been exaggerated in the myth. Like most serial killers, Bundy was basically a self-dramatising weasel – the film doesn’t even get into his Young Republican politics in the era of Nixon, since compulsively homicidal misogyny makes him monstrous enough. Efron is terrific in the role: his Bundy is needy, overly ingratiating, absurdly vain, compulsively self-defeating, and utterly repellent. Even when he works hard to maintain a normal relationship, he comes across as a creep – and during his trial, as Elizabeth starts to admit what a monster he is, he dumps her and moves on to an even more smitten dupe, Carol Anne Boone (Kaya Scodelario) whom he impregnates (while a guard looks the other way) and marries through a courtroom stunt/loophole that exhausts the judge’s patience.
Haley Joel Osment is present as a sort of anti-Bundy, a devoted chubby schlub workmate who Liz takes forever to notice is in love with her. It’s not a comfortable watch – I was reminded of a few other horror-comic true crime character studies (Auto-Focus, American Animals) – and never quite brings Liz’s viewpoint into focus even as it tells her story … but it’s worth seeing for its merciless, unimpressed skewering of one of the last century’s most horrible people.