Zac Efron arrived in Park City with a shock of platinum blonde hair, his blinding sideburns on a slalom down his chiseled jawline where they meet dark brown facial hair. It’s a grooming decision that no one should be able to pull off, yet the bumblebee aesthetic conspires to somehow magnify those stinging blue eyes of his to a level of piercing that might as well be poisonous.
What we’re trying to say is that Zac Efron looks hot.
That’s superficial and horny, yes, but of serious cinematic note. We swear! Because, you see, hot, blonde Zac Efron was at the Sundance Film Festival to premiere a film he executive produced and stars in about notorious serial killer Ted Bundy, titled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. People being how people are, they began cheekily referring to the movie, about a man who brutally murdered at least 30 women during the ’70s, as the “Hot Ted Bundy” movie because of Mr. Efron’s involvement—a reduction as disturbing as it is sadly expected.
That is all to say that people didn’t quite know what to make about this whole awkward phenomenon. After having seen Extremely Wicked at its premiere Saturday night, it seems that the filmmakers didn’t know what to do with it either.
On the one hand, yes, Bundy was historically handsome and his charm is one of the most vital components to his story and that brutal, unflattering chapter in our cultural history. That the public found Bundy attractive is necessary to include in a movie about him. Ergo, Zac Efron triggering a cascade of heart palpitations when he arrived on Main Street in Park City is necessary, too. Hot Zac matters!
But while there is opportunity, even a responsibility, to explore the macabre charisma and ensuing fame that erected the tent around the Ted Bundy circus—his was the first trial to be nationally televised in the United States—Extremely Wicked fails to offer any broader context, any exploration into how that played into his murder spree, or even any other insight into Bundy and his psyche aside from his narcissistic desire for attention, and talent for grabbing it.
Zac Efron is hot. But then what?
That’s actually not a slight on the actor himself, who delivers the strongest performance of his career as Bundy. In fact, you could say he is perfectly cast, a natural fit for the Greatest Showman-esque spectacle of the trial scenes and so magnetic that you never truly indict those in his life who believed him when he continued to proclaim his innocence. When, despite his peacocked confidence, it all falls apart, the camera trains in on those blue eyes, betraying a rattled defeat and panicked desperation all at once.
The film, then, succeeds in that crucial part of its entire concept: subverting Efron’s celebrity image and our perceptions of him, looks or otherwise, to comment on Bundy’s own celebrity, which included a gaggle of fan girls, mystified over how they could be attracted to a man accused of such atrocities.
But fun fact about Extremely Wicked: It is directed by the same person who directed the sprawling four-part documentary series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, which premiered just last week. It’s a rare exploration of the different ways to tell a story from director Joe Berlinger, best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.
Berlinger appeared alongside Efron and co-star Lily Collins, who plays Bundy’s former fiancée, for a Q&A session following Extremely Wicked’s Sundance premiere. He explained his intention for Extremely Wicked several times, that he didn’t want to make your typical “serial killer movie,” following a crime spree and a manhunt like a procedural thriller. And instead of exploring the trope of the innocent man wrongly convicted, he was attracted to the idea of delving into someone who was guilty, but so beguiling that people assumed his innocence.
But there isn’t much delving in Extremely Wicked. Notably, everyone on stage mentioned, multiple times, that anybody wanting to learn the real story of what happened and who Ted Bundy was should in fact go watch Berlinger’s Netflix series. They have a point—which raises the vital question of whether there is one to their own movie.
Most of the discussion surrounding the movie centers around what it is not, to the extent that it’s nearly impossible to describe what it actually is.
For all the attention on Efron, Collins’ character is very much the co-lead, grappling with decades of guilt over what part she may have played, at various times, in Bundy’s murders and his capture. But this isn’t her story, not at all. And while ample time is spent on their initial romance, the plot diverges away from that so aggressively in its second act that you couldn’t call this a exploration of their love story, either.
The movie comes alive when the trial starts, opening up necessary commentary on a turning point in the history of the American media that was, at least in some part, driven by Bundy’s showboating. But the film's sprawl, beginning in 1969 and extending through his execution 20 years later, reduces that commentary to just a blip in its greater scheme.
There’s little in the way of dissection or even depiction of the murders, which has the absurd effect of elevating Efron’s winsome Bundy into a protagonist you root for getting away with it all. And as for any insight into Bundy’s psychology—why he did it, how he thought he could get away with it, why he maintained his innocence for so long—there’s none of that.
It’s not a surprise, then, that “Hot Ted Bundy” has emerged as the uncomfortable talking point from the film. There’s nothing else to discuss.
We cannot stress enough that we are in no way blowing this whole Zac’s-a-stone-cold-fox thing out of proportion. It is something we were told to notice professionally. We received no less than five press releases touting Efron’s snow-melting—i.e. hot, hot, hot—arrival in Park City. One email’s subject literally read, “Zac Efron Debuts New Dreamy Platinum Blonde Hair at Sundance.” Someone, somewhere wanted to be sure that Efron’s Sundance presence, to premiere this buzzy new film, was inextricably tied to his sex-on-a-stick status. Note taken!
While that certainly combines with, again, an impressive performance that cements Efron as a viable movie star, it exposes the film as one that does not support that potential.
So now all this talk about hotness doesn’t amount to commentary on a movie. It’s simply crass—and this is one time when an actor being extremely attractive is actually supposed to have a point.