With the coordinated release of the Netflix documentary, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, plus the trailer for the upcoming Ted Bundy movie, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, everyone is talking about the 1970s serial killer at the moment. Both are directed by veteran true crime filmmaker, Joe Berlinger, and while one was exactly what I was expecting, the other one was definitely not.
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is a fairly run-of-the-mill, four-hour true crime documentary about Ted Bundy, who eventually confessed to murdering more than thirty people. It’s based on interviews that Bundy gave to journalist Stephen Michaud whilst in prison, which Berlinger intersperses with interviews with key players in the investigation, newsreels from the time and footage from his trials. It covers his horrific crimes, capture and subsequent escapes from prison, whilst slightly glossing over a few key points from his childhood, most noticeably the persistent (but unproven) rumor that his grandfather was also his father. Bundy is one of the most well-known serial killers in history, so this documentary probably won’t teach you much that you don’t already know if you’re a true crime aficionado, but it is still essential viewing.
In my opinion, Bundy comes across as an arrogant, petty and inadequate man who preyed on young women in order to feel powerful in a world that wasn’t giving him what he felt he was entitled to. And yet, this documentary still seems to want to perpetuate the myth – and I really do think it is a myth – that Ted Bundy was charming and somehow desirable. Much like the ‘Night Stalker’ Richard Ramirez, Bundy gained somewhat of a following of female admirers, many of whom attended his trial, captivated by his so-called good looks and intelligence. This documentary doesn’t really try very hard to dispel the myth of Bundy as a charmer – something which can be illustrated in no better way than the baffling moment when the trail judge told Bundy he would have made a good lawyer, that he held no animosity towards him and to take care of himself, which is ironic considering he’d just sentenced him to die in the electric chair.
I find the idea of Bundy as a heart-throb rather confusing. He’s not good looking, unless you’ve got a thirst for the seventies dad look, and his personality is utterly repellent, rather than charming. He has a slimy, second-hand car salesman air to him, and I don’t think he was as intelligent as he wanted everyone to believe, he was just very adept at faking it. In the tapes and the newsreel footage he comes across as petty and argumentative, with a real love of the sound of his own voice and a very fragile ego, which is not what I would call attractive. And even if that kind of human trash bag is your thing, there’s the minor added detail that he’s a convicted murderer.
This brings me to the trailer for Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, due to be released this year and starring Zac Efron as Ted Bundy. Efron bears enough of a resemblance to Bundy to be convincing, albeit as a more polished, better looking version, and it’s not just the casting of a big name like Efron that lends the trailer a very Hollywood feel. Tone-wise, I was expecting this movie to fit into the Mindhunter/Nightcrawler/My Friend Dahmer aesthetic, so when I saw it, I found it incredibly jarring. The music wouldn’t be out of place in some sort of buddy cop movie starring The Rock or Mark Wahlberg, and while it’s impossible to know just from a short trailer what the overall tone of the finished movie is going to be, it certainly looks like it might be an ill-judged, glamorous romp through Bundy’s 30+ brutal murders.
Some movie/true crime fans have already leapt to the defense of the trailer, saying that it is simply showing Ted Bundy the way that a lot of people saw him – as an attractive, charming man – but even if that is the effect they’re going for, it still doesn’t sit quite right with me. I sincerely hope that the trailer was just poorly edited, and that the finished movie is going to be more nuanced, because despite my fascination with true crime, I have a real issue with portraying murderers as anything other than what they are – an aberration. The adoration of criminals might be old news, considering it’s been happening for decades, probably centuries, but I’m not sure that we need our pop culture to be perpetuating the idolization of the worst examples of the human race. A fictional anti-hero is one thing, but there is something icky about trying to make a real-life scumbag like Ted Bundy sexy. We’re naturally drawn to the darker side of life, because it’s fascinating, but do we really need to be turning our villains into heroes?