I do not recall ever seeing such controversy over a trailer for a film. That’s right, a trailer. The movie – EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL. AND VILE – hasn’t even been released yet, but I have spent more time arguing about it over the last week than I have about climate change. The film stars Zac Efron as infamous serial killer Ted Bundy and is told from the point of view of Bundy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer.
If you’re not interested in watching this movie because you simply have no interest in the “true crime” genre or creepy movies in general, that’s totally fine. But there are a few ridiculous criticisms that I’ve heard about this trailer over and over again that I want to address here.
First, let’s discuss the notion that Ted Bundy is being romanticized and glorified in this film. The word “glorified” gets thrown around a lot these days, so let’s take a look at the actual definition of the word:
“glorified: represented in such a way as to appear more elevated or special (especially of something or someone ordinary or unexceptional).”
Even without having seen the film, I can all but promise you that this director – Joe Berlinger – has no intention of glorifying Ted Bundy. Berlinger is also responsible for the Netflix docu-series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which is an in-depth look at Bundy’s crimes and his ability to fool his victims – as well as the public – into thinking someone like him could never harm a living soul. It’s almost insulting to suggest that Berlinger, after making this series, would have the audacity to portray Bundy in his feature-length film as anything more than a vile human being who committed heinous crimes.
Also, these crimes took place in the 1970s. It is way too late to be concerned with making Bundy’s name famous.
A popular critique from the trailer is that Zac Efron is too good looking, too charming and too likable. Guess what! Ted Bundy was all of those things in real life! Are we supposed to ignore history because it makes us feel uncomfortable? I would argue that if you feel uneasy watching the trailer because you’re attracted to Efron’s portrayal of the character, then the director has actually done his job. Bundy was able to lure so many victims in to his immediate grasp, and evade capture for so long, exactly because he was charming, smooth-talking and handsome. He looked the part. He fit the visual expectations (at the time) of a normal, trustworthy, upstanding guy.
And let’s keep in mind that in the 1970s, people had not yet learned the lesson that monsters do not always look like monsters. Bundy actually taught us the very valuable lesson that referring to a rapist or killer as a “monster” is in fact dangerous, because it provokes an image of something less than human, a hideous beast lurking behind the bushes. The result is that we are more likely to let our guard down when approached by the charismatic hot guy.
As we hear Bundy himself say in the Netflix series, when speaking about the police not being able to pin the crimes on him initially, “Which one are they gonna pick, the law student with no criminal background, or are they going to go after the guy with the arrest record for robbery, or you know, the types? The real weirdos.” I never thought I would say this, but, good point Ted Bundy!
I’ve also seen it argued that it is disrespectful to Bundy’s victims to tell the story from his girlfriend’s point of view. On the contrary, I believe NOT allowing Elizabeth Kloepfer’s story to be told would actually be offensive to her. Before she knew the truth about Ted, she really did care for him. They lived together, along with Liz’s young child that she had from a previous relationship. Once the truth came to light, imagine how she felt knowing how deeply she had been deceived by a man she loved.
Imagine how guilty she felt knowing she put her child in danger every day they lived with this man. Elizabeth Kloepfer is as much a victim as any of the women Bundy murdered, and she deserves to have her story told. If you think it’s inappropriate to include a romantic relationship Bundy had in this film, let me remind you once again that these are facts. This is what happened in real life. He was a human being with relationships, which by the way is very common among serial killers.
One particular criticism that made me lose it was that the trailer made it look like Kloepfer’s attitude toward Bundy was one of “he’s a bad boy, but I love him anyway,” and this is just preposterous. In 1974, Kloepfer called the police and said that they should take a look at Bundy, even though she wasn’t certain he was actually guilty of all these violent crimes. Who wants to believe someone they love is capable of these horrible things? But she did feel there was enough suspicious activity to call the police, which I am sure was a very hard step for her to take. Kloepfer told police about some unsettling things Bundy had said to her, and about items she had found in the apartment and in Ted’s car that caused alarm bells to go off.
If Kloepfer was reluctant to believe Bundy was guilty, even once he was incarcerated, then she was not alone by any means. The public, especially women, largely found it hard to accept that someone who looked like Ted could have murdered all those women. That’s what made this case and his trial so fascinating. In Berlinger’s docu-series, we learn that even people in Bundy’s Mormon Church branch believed he was completely innocent and came to his defense.
One of Bundy’s living witnesses, Carol DaRonch, who was able to identify Ted immediately in a line-up, was even second-guessed by her friend, who asked “Are you sure you have the right guy?” To me, it looks like this phenomenon is exactly what the movie is trying to convey – Ted being so charming that you question whether the police in fact have the right man in custody, despite all the evidence against him.
There is a scene in the trailer where Efron is in the courtroom and he looks directly into the camera and winks, which is another source of outrage for some people. To those people, I want to point out that this is not a scene that was just added as a way to play up Zac Efron’s sexiness. It actually happened! The Ted Bundy Tapes includes a scene from actual footage of Bundy’s trial where he basically does this; he looks at the camera and gives this gross smirk.
Bundy was a psychopath and a narcissist, who thought he was smarter than everyone in the room. Prime example: He fired his attorneys and represented himself at his trial (a death penalty case!) because he truly believed himself to be smarter than any lawyer. Undoubtedly, his courtroom demeanor portrayed this attitude.
I would urge anyone who wants to see this film when it is finally released to watch The Ted Bundy Tapes on Netflix. It’s a fascinating look at Bundy’s psychopathic behavior, and I think it will give people who may not be fully aware a better idea of the true story that inspired the movie. To those who want to argue that there are enough books, films, etc., about serial killers, we should keep in mind that talking about these cases is how we continue the conversations about victim blaming, toxic masculinity, how class and race relate to killers and their victims, and on and on. We need to know our history in order to learn from it, not put on rose-colored glasses and pretend it didn’t happen and doesn’t continue to happen.
Having said all that, I will remind you once more that this is only a trailer. At the very least, can we all agree that we should wait to pass judgment on the film until we have actually seen it, please?
I would encourage people to look up the names of Bundy’s victims, because they should never be forgotten. They were bright, young women whose futures were stolen from them. https://www.truthfinder.com/infomania/crime/ted-bundy/
Finally, this is a fantastic article about Kathy Kleiner, one of Ted’s living victims (who fully endorses this movie, by the way): https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/ted-bundy-kathy-kleiner-living-victim-serial-killer-784780/