The true number of people that necrophiliac serial killer Theodore “Ted” Bundy murdered between 1974 and 1978 is unknown, over forty years on. However, his monstrous crimes horrified people across the United States of America and beyond, the mystery surrounding him just as terrifying as the crimes themselves.
In 2019, he’s being played by Zac Efron – High School Musical alumnus and the face of the Disney Channel for a great deal of the early 2000s.
He’s not the only Disney actor to graduate to murderer biopics. 2017’s My Friend Dahmer followed the high school relationship between artist John Backderf and another infamous serial killer: Geoffrey Dahmer.
Who portrays Dahmer? Austin and Ally star Ross Lynch.
It’s hardly a new epidemic – star power is a huge influence on a movie’s success. William Wallace likely didn’t resemble Aussie Mel Gibson – in one of the most ridiculous castings in movie history – but Gibson’s starring role helped propel the film’s marketing.
The controversy surrounding Efron’s casting has been circulating since it was first announced, and Director Joe Berlinger has responded amicably to it recently:
“If you actually watch the movie, the last thing we’re doing is glorifying him.
He gets his due at the end, but we’re portraying the experience
of how one becomes a victim to that kind of psychopathic seduction,”
(Source: Digital Spy, ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile director responds to criticism film glorifies Ted Bundy’)
And Berlinger is probably correct, seeing as most of the criticism has been levelled before the film has even been released. It takes a great deal of skill to portray a psychopath with any nuance, and A-list actors (who just also happen to retain their good looks in the performance) are often safe bets. However, it’s hardly the audience’s fault for expecting a hammy performance of a real-life killer. In the case of Geoffrey Dahmer, for example, My Friend Dahmer wasn’t the killer’s first appearance on screen. The imaginatively titled Dahmer (2002) featured Jeremy Renner in a somewhat fictionalised depiction of the killer’s life, which did a disservice to both the story and the real-life crimes by being both gratuitous in its portrayal and vague with the subject matter. As for Renner, he joined the ranks of Mel Gibson in Braveheart and James Franco in True Story in the “Stunt-Casting” hall of fame. Efron could easily be cut from the same cloth, but with a far more gruesome true-life tale, still fresh in the minds of many Americans. Alternatively, it could be a stroke of genius on Berlinger’s part. Actors have managed to brilliantly sell the role of the fictional psychopath: Hitchcock’s titular Psycho Norman Bates was portrayed by 60’s “teen heartthrob” Anthony Perkins, American Psycho saw future-Batman Christian Bale slip into the forensic suit of Patrick Bateman, or even No Country for Old Men’s assassin Chigurh is brought to life one of People Magazine’s “10 Sexiest Men Alive” (2016) Javier Bardem. Each of these performances was nominated or won accolades for their takes on emotionless killers. But the question still remains: why does Hollywood loves giving their psychos both charisma and promiscuity? Surely the point of a psychopath story is a cautionary tale? Ralph Fiennes’ Red Dragon is shot, Heath Ledger’s Joker is captured – are the audience not meant to be repelled by these people, to see the ugly nature of humanity and be warned against indulging the darkest urges of the human psyche?
Well, not exactly. Not anymore, at least.
The other odd side effect of this trend is that the focus of these stories has shifted.
Whilst 1986’s Manhunter follows Will Graham tracking the “Tooth Fairy Killer”, with the incarcerated Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter acting as more of a foil to his character; 2013’s Hannibal series is more focused on the psycho psychiatrist (portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen: Sexiest Man in the World according to Denmark’s Woman Magazine) and his intelligent, murderous game against Graham and the F.B.I.
Just a friendly reminder: Hannibal Lecter eats people. But, strangely, it works.
Because Hannibal Lecter isn’t real.
The story Hannibal tells over its three seasons, with its pitch-black humour and psychedelic imagery, is tailor-made fiction. The audience is positioned to find Mikkelsen as Doctor Lecter attractive, because it’s a conceit of the series. So, if Hannibal brutally cuts a woman’s throat, its entertainment. When Ted Bundy does it, it’s history.
That’s the uncomfortable part. It’s not the actor, it’s the act. Dahmer, Bundy and company committed unspeakable atrocities – which we may never know the true extent of – and to cast models to play them seems glorifying. Efron’s take on Bundy could be accurate, it could be a chillingly accurate portrayal of the man who terrorised the U.S for nearly half a decade. But it will be marred by his previous roles in very – very – different parts. Troy Bolton is the example that springs to mind, but his career spans multiple hugely successful entertainment films, that means that Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Time will tell whether the film makes it work or not, but for now its fair to say that Berlinger and company have backed themselves into a very difficult corner with the casting.
You may have noticed all of the killers mentioned have been male, and this debate is a completely separate can of worms. Should there be gender equality amongst characters who are essentially villains, who are then strangely sexualised yet given prominence? Is it more or less problematic to do that?