EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL AND VILE. (2019) A FILM BY DOCUMENTARIAN JOE BERLINER.
BASED ON THE BOOK ‘THE PHANTOM PRINCE: MY LIFE WITH TED BUNDY’ BY ELIZABETH KENDALL.
STARRING ZAC EFRON, LILY COLLINS, KAYA SCODELARIO, HALEY JOEL OSMENT AND JOHN MALKOVICH.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘What happened to her head…?’
‘Don’t wag your finger at me, young man!’
This film gets my seal of approval. What qualifies me to judge whether it’s any good? Well, you know the Milhouse Van Houten quote from THE SIMPSONS, ‘I knew the dog before he came to school?’ That’s me, lol. I was swotting up on Ted Bundy back in the mid-‘Noughties, long before the Cult Of Ted was experiencing its current magnificent rebirth, back when I was going through my ‘serial killer’ phase. Reading up on ’em, that is, not being one!
I read everything I could get my hands on about Ted, including his girlfriend Liz Kendall’s little book, ‘THE PHANTOM PRINCE.’ This was back when the book was out of print and hard to find. Now, given the wave of Ted-mania sweeping anew across the globe thanks to this film, I expect the books’s been re-printed in its billions with Zac Efron as Ted on the cover.
I also expect that Liz Kendall has penned a foreword, an afterword and an epilogue, just as crime writer Ann Rule regularly updated her famous book about Ted, THE STRANGER BESIDE ME, to include the ten-year appeals process and Ted’s eventual execution at the hands of the good folk at Florida State Penitentiary. If she hasn’t, well, then, I expect someone else has.
Now that we’ve established my credentials as an avid reader of Ted-lit, let’s talk about the film. It’s not really a film about the murders Ted committed, as Liz was unaware of these until quite late in the day. It’s a film about Liz’s life and relationship with Ted, as is the book, and charts their joint experiences from their first ever meeting in a Seattle college bar in 1969 to Ted’s execution for murder in 1989.
Liz couldn’t believe her luck, basically, that someone as handsome and charismatic as law student Ted should take an interest in her, a lowly office worker and single mother to a little girl. But Ted was interested, very interested indeed, and pretty soon the three of them, Ted, Liz and Liz’s daughter Molly (in the book she’s Tina) were a tight, compact little family unit.
Quite soon into the film, we start hearing about the disappearances and murders of attractive young women from Washington, Seattle, Utah, Oregon and Colorado, all the different places in which Ted has been living, in other words.
The women mostly all look alike, young, slim and pretty with long brown straight hair parted in the middle, but in the film we don’t hear about this, or whom Ted is really striking at when he picks up and destroys these virtual clones of each other.
Liz is as horrified as anyone else when Ted is arrested for these terrible crimes. In the book, she talks about his penchant for petty crime, for stealing and for unexplained disappearances of his own that she feels a bit ‘hinky’ about, as the Americans call it, but in the film it looks pretty much like it’s the first she’s hearing about Ted’s possible involvement in murder.
Zac Efron as Ted is superb. He’s captured the look, the charm and the charisma of the real Ted exactly. There’s even an uncanny physical resemblance between the two men when Efron is all ‘Ted-ded up’ in the wool cardigan with the heavy ‘Seventies lapels, or the tight yellow sweater Ted wore to the police line-up in which kidnap victim Carol Da Ronch recognised him out of several other men as ‘Officer Roseland.’ This being, of course, the phoney police officer who’d attempted to abduct her from the Fashion Place Shopping Mall on the pretext that her car had been broken into.
Let’s talk about Liz for a minute. Well played by Lily Collins, daughter of musician Phil Collins, she’s basically a mess from the time the news breaks about Ted to the end of the film. She smokes, she drinks, she hides herself away from life, her friends, and Ted, and her concentration at work suffers too. Well, it’s a lot to have going on, by anyone’s standards.
In the film, we see Liz trying to break away from Ted, trying to break up with him, even, but his protestations of undying love, fidelity and devotion are hard to say no to. Some of his letters to her are published in the book and he really, really had a way with words. She would have had to be superhuman not to be affected by his promises and metaphors.
The murders are not really depicted here, more alluded to, as it’s Liz’s story more than anyone else’s. We see her freaking out, understandably, each time Ted escapes from custody- twice he does this- and worrying herself sick in case he turns up on her doorstep. She even starts a relationship with a work colleague who seems to really care about her, but Ted keeps getting in the way. Every time she thinks she’s free and clear, up pops Ted.
I didn’t like the Carol Anne Boone character at all, the pushy woman who marries Ted in court and gives birth to his daughter while he’s still in prison. Not many people probably will, as she really seems to have blinkers on where Ted is concerned.
Even if she were faced with absolute irrefutable proof of his crimes, I genuinely don’t think it would have mattered to her. She wanted Ted and she set out to get him and she did get him, for what he was worth.
I daresay that even the most horrific crime scene photos and a signed confession from Ted himself, signed in his own blood, wouldn’t have made any difference to her ‘love’ for him. Why did I just apostrophise the word ‘love?’ No, of course I don’t doubt that she loved him. It’s just that the love of a woman for a man who kills women is a funny kind of love, isn’t it?
What this film really does well, whether or not it intends to, is to show how the groupie culture grew up around one of history’s most notorious serial killers. I think its main achievement will be to introduce a handsome young charismatic Ted to a new adoring generation of Ted-lovers, and they won’t care who he killed, raped or battered any more than the groupies from the ‘Seventies cared. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I think we know the answer to that.
My God, there’s real-life footage in the film of ‘Seventies groupies ooh-ing and aah-ing over Ted and saying things like, oh, a man that good-looking and intelligent couldn’t possibly be a KILLER…! It’s obvious that they’d date him in a shot if they had the chance.
They sat in the sweltering courtroom day after day, just waiting for a grin or a wink from Ted. Ted, of course, grandstanded and played to the gallery every chance he got, proving again and again the old adage that he who represents himself has a fool for a client.
I’m torn between thinking that these groupies are all just naïve fan-girls and wanting to elbow my way to the head of the Ted-love queue myself. It’s such a dichotomy. Why do women love men who kill, rape or beat women? I’m not qualified to answer that, but there are apparently whole books devoted to the subject. Maybe one of them has the answer to the sixty-four billion dollar question.
John Malkovich is good here as Judge Edward ‘Bless your heart’ Cowart, the guy who had no choice but to impose the death penalty on Ted after he was found guilty of the Chi Omega killings in Tallahassee, Florida in January 1978, during his second and last ever escape. (Florida State Penitentiary were adamant that Ted would not escape from THEIR facility…!) He’s the guy whose summing-up gave us the film’s rather clunky title, by the way.
Cowart was also the guy who rather strangely told Ted to ‘take care of yourself, pardner’ after he’d sentenced him to death. Tears flow down Ted’s cheeks as Cowart says that he, Ted, could have made a great attorney and that he’d love to have had Ted practising law in front of him but ‘you went a different way, pardner.’ Cowart comments on the shocking waste of human life he’d observed during the trial, and one gets the distinct feeling that he was including the ‘shocking waste’ of Ted’s own life as well.
The film shows clearly that Ted could have saved himself from the electric chair if he’d wanted to, by merely pleading guilty to the Chi Omega murders and attempted murders and the murder of twelve-year-old Kimberley Leach. Why he didn’t just plead guilty to save himself, I don’t know. Everyone knew he was guilty. Maybe he just couldn’t bear to have the world’s good opinion of him as a lovely young man altered.
In the film, we see the exact moment when Ted shows Liz his guilt for the first time. It’s a truly chilling moment. This is a terrific film, but it should probably come with a health warning for women, who are gravely in danger of falling under Ted’s spell when they view Zac Efron’s performance. Seeing his perfect ass in two nude shots won’t exactly help to put them off either, I’m afraid.
Another generation of groupies will emerge, as I said earlier. That will probably be the main long-term effect of this film. No doubt the egotistical Ted would be delighted to see how far his charisma, his power over people, over women, is able to stretch. I surely am the greatest trick in shoe-leather, he’s probably thinking right now from wherever he is.
A full thirty years after he was put to death in ‘Old Sparky,’ here we all are, still talking and thinking about him and wondering what makes him tick. Liz, I’m sure, was never able to forget him. She has her place in history now, anyway. I wonder what she feels about that…?
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, poet, short story writer and film and book blogger. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, women’s fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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