DALLAS — True crime splatters itself all across the storytelling mediums. It seems anywhere we look these days there’s a new book, documentary, television show or podcast devoted to the unimaginable crimes inflicted by the vilest of people — and yet we consume them and are fascinated by them. We want access to the minds of the wicked to learn more about how to protect our families and ourselves.

Ted Bundy is one of the most captivating serial killers of them all. Many other notorious murderers have high body counts, but Bundy remains a unique figure because he didn’t look like someone capable of such evil. He was a handsome man who had the manipulation skills to put you on his side. Before his confession, many doubted Bundy ever committed multiple murders and mutilations, despite an overwhelming amount of evidence.

Filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who most recently had a hand in the development of the Netflix docuseries Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, tackles this disbelief head-on by looking at how that doubt manifested in someone close to Bundy.

In Berlinger’s chilling film — Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile — we understand the complex nature of Bundy (Zac Efron) through the eyes of his longtime girlfriend and former fiancée, Elizabeth “Liz” Kloepfer (Lily Collins). Never does the film highlight the horrid crimes or show us the gory details of Bundy’s actions; instead, we explore the evidence against him and the emotional imprisonment of Liz.

Spanning 20 years from the moment Liz met Bundy as a single mother to Bundy’s execution, Extremely Wicked follows Liz as she remained in a relationship with Bundy for years, even while he was incarcerated. It’s a powerful psychological horror film where you, the audience member, feels just as confused about Bundy’s actions as Liz. Some critics have said Extremely Wicked glorifies Bundy, but once all is revealed, you realize how the film plays you like a fiddle.

As enjoyable as it is to watch Efron partake in frat wars with Seth Rogen or oil up his 16 abs alongside Dwayne Johnson, in Extremely Wicked, he shows how he is capable of so much more, leaving any trace of Troy Bolton in the dust. He wears Bundy like a second layer of skin. Efron finds a seamless balance between playing Prince Charming and the Prince of Darkness. The final scene of the movie alone is damn near Silence of the Lambs territory.

Collins isn’t stuck in some basic wife role, either. This is her story. We feel every ounce of her pain and struggle to free herself. Through Collins’ performance, you understand what Liz sees in Bundy. Even though Bundy doesn’t bring that same sickening violence home to Liz, the psychological torment he puts her through is just as disturbing to watch.

“Don’t give up on me,” Bundy tells Liz over and over.

Berlinger avoids the basic storytelling structure, bouncing around the timeline like one reflects on their past. It’s organic and flows quite smoothly. Extremely Wicked may dabble in some cliché drama territory every now and then, but it doesn’t detract from delivering the truth of the story, which is: The truth is scary.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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