Films about true life serial killers, the modern day bogeymen who have become etched onto the public consciousness like slices of psychotic folklore, tend to walk a very fine line between genuine attempts to report events and explore behaviour, and a ghoulish exploitation of the crimes which panders to the same thrill people get from slowing down to gape at car accidents. With “Ted Bundy”, a film about the escapades of the man who in the 1970s raped and killed more than thirty women and effectively gave birth to the term ‘serial killer’, director Matthew Bright (responsible for the cult “Freeway” films) flits between the two, trying to provide a factual, yet unashamedly visceral documentation of the evolution of a mass murderer.
As a result, the film makes for disturbing viewing; almost casually depicting Bundy’s escalating acts of depravity without any heavy handed moralising or efforts to explain his motivations. Although it does so successfully, and is a slick, well made and acted piece of genre film making, its offhand brutality and uncertainty of tone may alienate viewers and make even the most jaded gore hound feel like taking a shower afterwards.
The script, co-written by Bright and Stephen Johnston (for whom serial killers are very much de rigueur, having worked on films about Gein, Starkweather and the Hillside strangler) is very much grounded in the facts of the case, following Bundy (Michael Reilly Burke) from 1974, when he was a law student in Seattle, and where he also worked as a phone counsellor. Bundy’s psychosis grows, leading him from petty theft and voyeurism, through random assaults, and finally to rape and murder. All of this is very much unbeknownst to Bundy’s girlfriend Lee (Boti Bliss, “CSI: Miami”), who catches only glimpses of her boyfriend’s increasing perversity.
After Seattle, Bundy moves on to Utah, Colorado and finally Florida, leaving an ever growing trail of bodies in his wake, before getting careless and ending up in police custody — which he promptly escapes to continue killing. This adherence to actual events means that as a film “Ted Bundy” has a great deal of value, even if it is as a morbid curiosity piece, and as such boasts an air of uncomfortable realism. The fact that it centres almost wholly on Bundy himself, rather than any police investigators, or indeed any of his victims, gives the feel of a grimy biopic more than anything else.
This may well prove a problem for some viewers, since as a protagonist, Bundy is unlikely to evoke any feelings of sympathy, especially since Bright steers clear of any examination of his inner workings, or what exactly drove him to such savagery. Thankfully, this does mean that the film is free from pointless conjecture or trite pop-psychology, and allows for the fact that Bundy, or his case at least, is quite fascinating. Although we never learn much about Bundy’s mind, Bright has the sense never to overly demonise, allowing the viewer to draw their own conclusions about what drove an intelligent, middle-class man who was successful with women to such horrifying crimes.
Bright directs “Ted Bundy” with a vaguely documentary style, jumping between events rather that allowing any real narrative to intrude. To accentuate the gritty realism, the director judiciously inserts actual footage, as well as actual photographs of the real Bundy, which ensures that the viewer never forgets that the atrocities they are witnessing actually happened. This in itself is the crux of the film, and that which is either its greatest strength or most damning indictment, as the director flinches from none of the gruesome details of the rapes and murders, as a result filling the proceedings with blood and nudity.
Since these killings are generally framed and enacted as they are in most normal, fictional genre films, where they are played for obvious thrills, this does mark the film as belonging to the sleazier, more degenerate reaches of exploitation cinema. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the average horror fan, who cheers every time Jason Voorhees’ machete falls on a hapless, stereotypical victim, whooping with delight as Bundy does likewise. That said, Bright never tries to hide the nature of the film, nor does he dress it up with any pretensions or claims to relevance, and as such, this is an unapologetic case of ‘you get what you pay for’.
For those seeking a realistic, graphic and deeply unpleasant re-enactment of the gruesome crimes of a sexual psychopath, it is hard to find fault with “Ted Bundy”. However, for those seeking deeper insight into the mind of a compulsive killer, or a film with any sense of moral balance or indeed decency, it is definitely best avoided.
Matthew Bright (director) / Stephen Johnston, Matthew Bright (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Reilly Burke …. Ted Bundy
Boti Bliss …. Lee
Julianna McCarthy …. Professor
Jennifer Tisdale …. Pretty Girl