Around my neighborhood, and likely in other places, the Ted Bundy movie on Netflix is just known as “the Ted Bundy movie on Netflix.” The real title, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, is not the easiest to remember, Perhaps in your own circles, you just shorten it to Extremely Wicked. Whatever you call it, you definitely watched it. Or you’re going to. Zac Efron as the notorious serial killer? There’s a lot of appeal there, even if your end goal is to talk about the issue of yet another showcase for a sociopathic murder rather than the victims or to defend it against those claims, arguing that the point of the movie is to focus on the women who weren’t murdered by Bundy but were still affected and are victims of a different sort.
Once you do watch the Ted Bundy movie on Netflix, I recommend you follow it with the relevant picks below. If you’re just looking for more Bundy biopics, there are others providing that list, but this week’s Movies to Watch does have a good helping of true crime and dramas based on true crimes, and a varied bunch at that, to satisfy if you’re looking for less repetition.
Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes (2019)
Technically, we’re starting off with a miniseries rather than a movie, but we can’t ignore this other Joe Berlinger-helmed look at the life and crimes of Ted Bundy. He was working on this documentary when he was given the opportunity to pair it with Extremely Wicked, and it’s impressive that he was able to deliver both of them at the same time for the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution in January (plus this summer’s 40th anniversary of his big murder trial). Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is in part a standard true-crime doc laid out in chronological order with archival footage and interviews but it’s also based around hundreds of hours of tapes of Bundy making a case of his innocence recorded in 1980 by journalist Stephen Michaud as research for his book The Only Living Witness: The True Story of Serial Sex Killer Ted Bundy. It’s definitely one of the most fascinating serial killer documentaries out there.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
How do you know if a loved one is actually a serial killer or capable of becoming a mass murderer? For the woman known as Elizabeth Kendall (a pseudonym), played by Lily Collins in Extremely Wicked, the idea was unfathomable. Even after she had tipped the police off about Ted Bundy, her boyfriend at the time. Even following the numerous arrests and investigations and trials and in spite of the compelling evidence against him. It’s not emphasized in Extremely Wicked — there is a flashback montage that almost suffices — but in her book, Kendall does offer some clues she could have been more conscious of that the man sleeping beside her was some kind of psycho. Had Berlinger gone for more of that retrospective realization, his movie would have had more of a connection with Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which Tilda Swinton plays a mother attempting to look back on the life of her son, trying to recall anything she should have noticed about him being a possible psychopath, after the fact of him going on killing spree at home and school.
Berlinger does a decent job of evoking the 1970s and the films of that decade with Extremely Wicked, and it’s an intentional achievement considering he used anamorphic lenses from the time to get the look just right. He told Newsweek, “Instead of using production design to make an overly saturated, overly stylized version of the ’70s, I wanted to give that ’70s vibe more through the kind of glass, the lenses, we used. To use lenses that would have been available only then, not today.” Was it necessary for him to go with vintage equipment, though? For Zodiac, another movie about a 1970s serial killer, director David Fincher shot mostly with digital equipment and used a lot of digital effects combined with near-perfect costume and production design to present a wonderfully over stylized version. This masterpiece is interesting to watch in comparison with Extremely Wicked, additionally because of its focus on the people who seemed to know the killer best yet didn’t really know him at all — in his own way, the Zodiac killer pulled one over on every one since his identity remains unknown all these decades later.
American Psycho (2000)
The very handsome and charismatic Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversially violent 1980s-set novel American Psycho and Mary Harron’s beautifully bloody film adaptation, is somewhat inspired by Bundy. On two levels. Ellis read a lot of books about Bundy as research for the creation of the character, and Bateman is also said, in the novel, to be a fan of books about Bundy and other serial killers (he also idolized Donald Trump). In the movie, he mentions a bit of Ted Bundy trivia. Of course, the part about Bateman being successful and wealthy in his profession as a Wall Street investment banker is one aspect of the character that is very far from the real killer’s life. The other major difference is that nobody, not even his fiancee, realized Bundy was a serial killer, but he was, while nobody, not even his fiancee, realizes Bateman is a serial killer, and maybe he wasn’t and it’s all in his head as a deranged fantasy.
The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Hours prior to his execution in 1989, Bundy confessed to being influenced by pornography in his murderous deeds. He claimed that every violent criminal he’d met in prison was. He’s quoted as saying at some point, “If you want to stop people from becoming like me, don’t burn Catcher In The Rye, burn Hustler,” though this may not be an actual statement from real life so much as an anecdote from the TV series Criminal Minds. Anyway, that’s not why I’m recommending this biopic about Hustler founder Larry Flynt, as portrayed by Woody Harrelson. While many notorious figures have tried representing themselves in court, Flynt is one of the most famous for, like Bundy, turning the courtroom into a stage for his own narcissistic showmanship. The People vs. Larry Flynt doesn’t feature too much of Flynt’s solo antics serving as his own defender, but his behavior even when joined by his lawyer is all clownish impudence but actually for a good cause, as his trials through the 1970s and 1980s concerned obscenity laws.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
Berlinger is primarily a documentary filmmaker, and a good deal of his work has been in the true crime arena. He and his late collaborator Bruce Sinofsky broke out first with Brother’s Keeper, a 1992 doc about the murder of William Ward allegedly by his brother Delbert. They followed that with Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and HBO doc following the trial of “the West Memphis Three,” a trio of teenagers accused of killing three little boys. They were convicted, but unlike Bundy, they were innocent. But they were condemned for being — also unlike Bundy — social outcasts. They wore black and liked heavy metal music, and their community saw these and other traits as reasons for them to be brutal child killers. Berlinger and Sinofsky would return to the case for two more films, 2000’s Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and the Oscar-nominated 2011 doc Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which saw the West Memphis Three finally released from prison (albeit not through exoneration, unfortunately). Paradise Lost also led to Berlinger’s friendships with members of Metallica, whom he documented in 2004’s Some Kind of Monster. And for Extremely Wicked, the director cast Metallica singer James Hetfield in his onscreen film acting debut, in a small role as a police officer.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Bundy has been portrayed by many handsome actors in various biopics. While he was still alive, the first of these was a made-for-Tv movie called The Stranger Beside Me, in which he is played by Mark Harmon. The next movie to have a serial killer inspired by Bundy, though, was Jonathan Demme’s Best Picture winner, The Silence of the Lambs. Based on the Thomas Harris novel of the same name, the movie follows a young FBI agent investigating a series of murders with help from an incarcerated serial killer. The serial killer she’s trying to find, Buffalo Bill, was modeled after three real-life serial killers — Ed Gein, Gary M. Heidnik, and Ted Bundy. The last of them is evident in the way Buffalo Bill lures young women into his van by feigning injury, which is what Bundy would do with a fake cast. Harris interviewed an FBI agent who’d interviewed Bundy, and the author even attended Bundy’s murder trial. Bundy partly inspired the famous character Hannibal Lecter, too, because the real serial killer wound up helping the FBI catch others like him while he was serving time.
Stranger In the House (1974)
This movie may not seem familiar, but you probably know it by its original and now permanent title, Black Christmas. “Stranger In the House” was the US title for the Canadian slasher flick when it was broadcast on American television in 1978. Or when it was supposed to be broadcast, in the case of Florida. NBC was due to air the movie in primetime on January 28th, but then on January 15th, two students at Florida State University were murdered in their sorority house (by Ted Bundy, but that was not yet known), while others were severely injured. Because Black Christmas/Stranger In the House is about a killer in a sorority house, the NBC affiliates in Florida decided to postpone their broadcast of the movie until May. Even then, locals probably were reminded of the tragedy. In his pre-execution interview, Bundy also tried to blame slasher movies (like this one) for inspiring real violence, but while the horror film subgenre can be criticized for glorifying serial killers as much as biopics like Extremely Wicked does (if you believe it does), there’s still no evidence to suggest that something like Black Christmas makes someone like Bundy do the terrible things he does.
Extremely Wicked shows Bundy reading Henri Charrière’s memoir, Papillon, which is about the author’s escape from a penal colony in French Guiana after being wrongfully convicted of murder. Bundy tells Liz that he relates to the story since he claims to be innocent and also is inspired by the book to break out of jail. The movie also shows Liz reading the book later on, though there is no indication from the Kendall memoir that she ever did that. Instead, it was Bundy’s friend Ann Rule, who wrote in her own memoir about Papillon being the serial killer’s favorite book. “He must have felt like the protagonist of Papillon, the book he’d almost committed to memory during his long months in jail,” she wrote. “Beyond the cleverness of escape, Papillon had dealt with mind control, man’s ability to think himself past despair, to control his environment by sheer force of will. Was Ted doing that now?” Another adaptation of Papillon was recently produced, but I recommend the 1973 version starring Steve McQueen in the title role.
Surely by coincidence, Extremely Wicked arrives on Netflix the weekend of Gaslight’s 75th anniversary. The MGM classic stars Ingrid Bergman as a woman who is made to think she’s going crazy by her manipulative husband (Charles Boyer), who turns out to also be a murderer. In interviews about his new movie, Berlinger constantly describes what Bundy did to Liz and others as gaslighting. And he even means for the movie’s audience to feel that themselves. “I want each audience member to have that conflicted feeling, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m rooting for this guy,'” he told USA Today. “And then to have the experience by the film’s end of being conflicted and disgusted by the idea that they actually liked the guy. It’s the experience of everyone who is gaslit by Ted Bundy.” Where does the term and concept of “gaslighting” come from? This 1944 movie, of course, or at least from the Patrick Hamilton play the movie is adapted from. The word has become widely misused of late but still makes the most sense when describing charismatic killers like Bundy.