Review- ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ (2019)

Review- ‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ (2019)

When I first saw a still of Zac Efron as Ted Bundy I thought that whoever came up with that casting choice deserved an award. Not only do Ted and Zac look very similar but there was a sweet irony that the star of High School Musical had progressed to portraying one of America’s most notorious serial killers.

I first learnt of Bundy’s crimes after watching the brilliant 1986 TV movie The Deliberate Stranger which was released on two video tapes here in the UK soon after it aired in the US. This production showed that one thing is vital to any depiction of Bundy and his history- casting. Bundy was as all American as apple pie. He also goes against the stereotype of the type of person most think that a serial killer is. He was educated, handsome and extremely charismatic. Mark Harmon was cast as Bundy and this choice was brilliant. Harmon had been the star of many TV shows (most famously St Elsewhere)  and always as the dashing leading man. Harmon was using these very qualities to depict a man who used the same attributes for his own evil ends. It’s also worth noting that the man (Harmon not Bundy) who was voted The Sexiest Man Alive by People Magazine in 1986 (the year that Deliberate Stranger was made and aired) should be portraying the serial killer who had multiple female fans who decided that his good looks and sex appeal outweighed his alleged crimes.

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Since this TV movie there have been other movies regarding Bundy but none have been especially noteworthy in terms of either casting or content (it’s a shame that the adaptation of Ann Rule’s amazing book ‘The Stranger Beside Me’ wasn’t either cast or made better. It’s still, in my opinion, the definitive book on Ted).

So when it was announced that Zac Efron was to star in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Wicked and Vile as Bundy I just wished that the whole film would live up to the genius casting decision. I resubscribed to Netflix in time for the premiere date of 3rd May only to learn that whilst it’s being shown on Netflix, that isn’t the case in the UK. The movie could either be seen on Sky Movies (no thanks, Rupert Murdoch) or at one of the few cinemas which were showing it.

This, however proved to be a blessing in disguise. The film looks gorgeous and deserves to be seen on the big screen. In fact, there is plenty to like about this movie.

I had never heard of the 1981 book The Phantom Prince by Elizabeth Kendall which was written by Bundy’s fiancee about their life together. This book is still out of print- a golden opportunity for a reprint to coincide with this movie missed. Although there is an online copy available to read (Google is your friend…)

The fact that this story is from the perspective of Bundy’s partner proves to be a major strength here. This isn’t a straightforward account of Bundy’s crimes resplendent with depictions of them but rather what happened as seen through someone else’s eyes. This is a novel take on one of America’s most infamous serial killers and because of this feels fresh and original. Bundy is depicted as charming, charismatic and utterly human. It also means that when Bundy’s partner (and the audience) hears the details of Bundy’s crimes they appear even more shocking and appalling.

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Careful with that knife, Ted

Zac Efron’s depiction of Ted is rightly garnering plaudits from critics. His performance is multi-facted, nuanced and utterly brilliant. He portrays Bundy as not only as the All-American success story but also as a human being wearing a mask or shell. Check out the scene in the courtroom as Bundy is rising to his feet to hear the first of many verdicts- the trumped up show of confidence is shown to be a facade by Efron as we see that this event is so traumatic that it has actually mined down into the darkest and genuine core of Bundy. The mask has slipped as Bundy is about to discover his fate. Also, check out the scene where Bundy has just had sex with his ‘girlfriend’ after Liz leaves him. Momentarily we see the revulsion on Ted’s face when he has just shot his load and realises with whom. We see more evidence that Bundy doesn’t love Carole at all and is just using her so she will extol his innocence to the outside world. His skills of manipulation and control have been brought to the fore and we get to see behind the huge smile and good looks. We also then see the shell come back into place as Bundy starts to recompose himself and falsely reiterate his ‘love’ for her. She’s important to him but not for the reasons she thinks.

But this isn’t just a one performance film. The rest of the cast are great with Metallica’s James Hetfield and The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons also shining. John Malkovich is as ever brilliant in his role as Judge Cowart presiding over the Florida trial. He makes parallels against the fact that himself and Bundy have a great deal in common with Ted being a law student whilst he was committing his heinous crimes. It is one of the most poignant scenes in the film in which the judge mentions that Bundy had decided to use his considerable judicial skills for evil rather than good and that if he had decided to go down a better path Cowart would have loved to have witnessed these skills used in his courtroom.

The film also brilliantly examines the celebrity status given to serial killers. Bundy’s trial is the first in which cameras are allowed in the courtroom and so the trial will be transmitted to millions of homes across America. Bundy knows this and fully exploits it whilst using his charm to bewitch and enchant his audience. He puts on a dazzling performance, makes sure that he peers directly into the camera at multiple occasions to establish a bond with his viewers and even on one occasion, proposes to Carole live on air. It’s showbiz, baby.

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The courtroom as TV studio

The film also examines the phenomena of hybristophilia- the term used to describe the sexual attraction to serial killers. Ted always has a strong female groupie contingent in the courtroom. This will be multiplied many times over with the cameras catching the carefully cultivated performance and sexual charisma Bundy is having broadcast across America and indeed the world.

Whilst the film isn’t a straightforward chronological timeline of Bundy and his crimes we do get to hear about his alleged crimes throughout the film, especially the Chi Omega sorority house that he invades before going on a one-man massacre of several of it’s occupants. But even with the details of these crimes being peppered throughout the movie, the ending in which Liz confronts Bundy is still a shock to behold. She has been given a photograph of one of Ted’s victims by a detective that has brought home the true evil of his crimes. We get to see the picture of a naked female corpse which has had it’s head removed. Bundy still protests his innocence as he has throughout the duration of the film up until this point. He even offers the flimsy explanation that wild animals could have inflicted that on the cadaver. Liz demands to know the truth. We then get to see Bundy take off his mask altogether. He argues that he couldn’t tell her the truth as the phone they are using to communicate with each other is probably tapped by the authorities. He then calmly puts down the receiver he is speaking into and writes the word ‘HACKSAW’ onto the plastic screen that separates them. It’s an immensely powerful scene as it shows that Bundy is ‘Bad’ and not ‘Mad’ and that he knew exactly what he was doing and that there are no multiple personalities at play here.

This scene is also one of the movie’s major aces up it’s sleeve. Up until that point we had never seen Bundy commit one of the crimes he has been accused of or even admit culpability for them. Here he has. The whole celebrity status awarded to serial killers and that grimy culture has now been placed under the spotlight. We have been watching High School Musical’s Zac Efron charm his way into our hearts throughout the film. And we have been duped. For all of his escape antics, winks to camera and good looks, he is a monster and knew exactly what he was doing. Just as Bundy charmed his way into Liz and Carole’s lives for his own ends, he has done to same to us. The film has also done this without glamorising Bundy and his deeds or trying to substantiate them. The audience was kept in the dark regarding his crimes just like Liz was, which is fitting as this story is told from her perspective and not Ted’s. We get to see the full impact of the full truth and how it must have felt for Liz.

It also brings up the question of if he truly loved her or if that was just a well manicured and cultivated lie. The film also begs the question that what we have seen during the movie might not be the whole truth. One early scene involves Bundy being next to Liz in bed under the covers using a torch. When she wakes up startled he gives the explanation of reading a law book ahead of an exam and not wanting to wake her up. We later see the same scene replayed but the audience is awarded the knowledge of what Ted was actually doing- looking at Liz’s dormant sleeping body under the sheets. Was he aroused by her unmoving form? Was he aroused by his victims in the same way? Was he planning to do away with Liz?

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The mask slips

The main question I had after seeing this film was whether Efron is eligible to be nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal with this film being a Netflix production. Now just imagine that- Ted Bundy winning an Academy Award.

4/5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 20- The Boston Strangler (1968)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 20- The Boston Strangler (1968)

A Hollywood production portraying the real-life murderous rampage of a serial killer dubbed The Boston Strangler.

Great casting with Tony Curtis playing against type as the homicidal lead (and he does a great job- check out the chilling final scene), Henry Fonda and Murray Hamilton as detectives on his case.

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This looks great as a film with beautiful cinematography. Sometimes the use of split screen and an almost mosaic style works very well (the scenes of Boston’s women buying more locks and guns in response to the culture of fear because of the Strangler use this technique really well) but at other times it feels a bit heavy-handed and patronising for the audience as you’re forced to focus on one aspect of the screen that you would have picked up on without this device being used.

Theres a great sequence where the police chief says that he wants every pervert to be questioned (he lists examples starting with ‘toilet queens’ which made me giggle). One locale we see a suspect being questioned is a 60’s gay bar. This doesn’t pull any punches with societal attitudes towards homosexuality being played out. The police detective says hes ‘slumming it’ by being in a gay bar when asked by his suspect if he was there to satisfy his curiosity. But then he quickly apologises. This almost sympathetic view towards gay people must have been shocking to audiences then.

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This was also a very early Hollywood film about a real life serial killer. This subject has been examined a lot more since then in film and so parts of this movie feel a bit obvious and sensationalised. But its worth remembering that this film was very brave for examining this very gritty fare. Society was changing with a darker cloud rolling in after the summer of love and this encroaching darkness was now seeping into Hollywood cinema.

This film might lag in some sequences but it’s great in others.

2/5 out of 5 stars

Cease To Exist- The Cultural Influence of Charles Manson

Cease To Exist- The Cultural Influence of Charles Manson

I woke up to the news a couple of days ago that Charles Manson had died. My gut feeling was one of loss.

Yes thats not the acceptable thing to say when a serial killer dies. And not just any serial killer but the capo of serial killers. A serial killer so conniving that he even brainwashed and groomed others to do the majority of the killing for him. Nice try, Charlie.

He was the person who caused the loss of many innocent lives, even the lives of victims not born yet (Sharon Tate was seven months pregnant when she was slaughtered). He also figuratively ended the lives of the members of his Family who still languish in prison after committing the crimes after being plied with LSD and coerced into committing these atrocities. Just as he set up an alibi for himself for the murders whereby he could demonstrate he didn’t kill anyone, he also tried to conclusively incriminate the Family members who actually did kill on the two nights of massacres.

And yet whilst he was utterly vile in action and deed, I experienced a strange sense of loss because he was and is so very interesting. His actions and deeds are now ingrained in American history and he is seen as ‘The Man Who Killed The 60’s.’ Yes, murder is abhorrent but with such a moniker, as Quentin Crisp observed about the serial killer Gilles de Rais, ‘its hard not to be impressed’. History is balance and Manson seemed to be a one man Yang to the flowers, peace and love of late 60’s America’s Ying.

His image on the cover of Life magazine was possibly the first time that the general public were given a glimpse of the man who had caused all of the carnage they had read about. It didn’t disappoint and perfectly captured who he was, what he had done and what he symbolised in American society. He was The Boogeyman and his iconic picture was enough to induce countless nightmares just like Myra Hindley’s infamous mugshot had a few years earlier over the pond.

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The reactions to Manson’s death in the media and social media only heightened my sense of loss regarding it. Lots of people were crawling out from under their rocks to type ‘R.I.P’ but taking the time to exclaim to everyone that this in fact meant ‘Rot In Pieces’. And then there were those (and there were many) who took great delight in saying what they’d like to have done to Manson. One sticks in my mind more than others- a Facebook user said that he’d like to ‘bring Manson back to life so that I can beat him to death again with my bare hands’. Nothing sinister or dark there whatsoever.

Within a film group that I’m a member of the news of his death was reported with the group’s admin asking ‘Who should play him in a film?’ Someone responded ‘NO ONE! Why would anyone want to see a film about that psycho nutjob? Why try to romanticise his life?’ In other words this person was wildly trying to virtue signal and say ‘Look everyone, I have higher morals than a serial killer! I’m going to demonstrate them now! When do I get my prize?’ Thankfully not everyone agrees with this dullard.

My initial pang of loss was due to the fact that Manson permeated and overlapped with so much popular culture that I have loved since my teens. Yes he was a serial killer, yes he was interesting in the societal and historical framework of America but also he was really good value for money!

There are numerous great documentaries on Manson and his followers but the one that had the biggest impact on me was one called Charles Manson: Then and Now which I bought on VHS in 1992. I’ve transferred it to YouTube and it can be found here. Note the presentation- an audio track that is so high that its distorted, references to Manson’s influence on exploitation/drive-in films and alternative music (note the picture of Genesis P Orridge from his/her Throbbing Gristle days), sinister horror film incidental music. This is the stuff of mondo culture and I lapped it up as a teen and continue to.

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After devouring this documentary I also picked up a copy of the excellent book Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi who was the prosecutor at the Manson trial. Thorough, exhaustive and amazingly researched. Also worth investigating is the book The Family by Ed Sanders (lead singer of the Fugs).

On a lighter note, a book that I picked up much later was this- yes, Columbo takes on the Manson Family. I’m still waiting for the Dirty Harry-Son of Sam crossover novel but it hasn’t materialised yet.

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Whilst there were many Manson inspired B- movies that were hurriedly made around the time of Manson’s trial (documented well in the above linked documentary), the best film is Helter Skelter which is more a biopic of Manson and his Family’s life. This was actually a TV movie back in the day and earned massive ratings as viewers couldn’t wait to watch the grisly events unfurl. And the Moral Minority still take the moral high ground and get all Mary Whitehouse about such productions even though they are massively popular.

Helter Skelter is available on DVD and well worth obtaining. It stars Steve Railsbeck who was in Turkey Shoot. If this doesn’t act as a high enough recommendation then I don’t know what will. He is Charles Manson.

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Manson also cast a shadow over the work of John Waters which I started watching when I was 13. In the film Multiple Maniacs, Lady Divine holds Mr David in check by continually reminding about that night in the Hollywood Hills and the people they supposedly killed- a reference to the Tate-LaBianca murders that at that time hadn’t been solved or attributed to Manson yet. Waters would later attend the Manson trials.

Also in the film Pink Flamingos Divine walks past a wall that is spraypainted with the moniker ‘Love Tex Watson xx’ Waters’ next film Female Trouble is even dedicated to Charles Watson. The story regards a criminal and eventual murderer, Dawn Davenport who equates crime with beauty and fame. She is encouraged to be even more extreme in her actions whilst keeping them in line with her beliefs after being groomed and brainwashed by Donald and Donna Dasher. This brainwashing is very reminiscent of Manson- in Female Trouble liquid eyeliner takes the place of LSD as a mind-altering lubricant for this grooming and puppetry. Also within this film there are the scenes in which Davenport disrupts court proceedings just like Manson did by screaming the word ‘Liar!’ at certain points. She also makes statements as to her own magnitude and her sense of self-worth.

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But Female Trouble’s most perceptive observations are regarding fame and crime. Theres really not much difference between Elizabeth Taylor being filmed and photographed by the press in an airport terminal and Charles Manson receiving the same treatment on his way to court. Yes, Manson was responsible for the murder of several people. Some people would say Elizabeth Taylor’s later celluloid forays were the artistic equivalent.

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Fame, fame, fatal fame. Theres not that many differences between being famous and infamous.

Waters later said that he regretted his flippancy regarding Manson and his Family in his films as he got to know Leslie Van Houten who hes now friends with and believes is now ready for parole. I’ve never seen Waters more serious in his interviews except when speaking of Van Houten who he says was just a pawn in Manon’s overall scheme- a disillusioned middle class girl who wanted to rebel and came into contact with Satan himself. Shes now free from the magnetic hold of Manson but serving life in prison for her involvement whilst briefly under the influence of a master manipulator. An account of Waters’ friendship with Leslie is a chapter in Waters’ book, Role Models (an amazing book. Highly recommended).

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John Waters with his friend Leslie Van Houten

Another aspect of Manson and his legacy that I found intriguing was his position as a countercultural icon. Once Manson’s face and crimes were well known his image would appear on all manner of merchandise to be lapped up by the darker components of the counterculture and those who wanted to stick two fingers up at authority. You’re an angry teenager who wants to shock all those around you and give Mom and Dad a coronary? Buy a Charles Manson t-shirt. This action was akin to the first London punks wearing a swastika. They might not have been Nazis but they wanted to shock and outrage.  The older generation who had used the ‘I fought the war for your kind!’ line would be apoplectic with rage at a fashion accessory like a swastika armband. Job done.

But there were also those in the counterculture who looked to Charlie as some kind of religious leader just like his Family members did. A major source of his twisted philosophy were his lyrics. Yes, Charlie was a singer, musician and lyricist. His songs are actually pretty good. But I’ve never subscribed to this ‘Charles Manson, philosopher’ schtick. Hes too much of a fucking nutjob for that.

So, Charles Manson has died. The end of the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970’s. Altamont, Nixon, Vietnam…Charlie’s place in this dark period of American historical events is assured.

Please don’t take the moral high ground by suggesting that reading and watching about Manson and his dark, warped place in American history is bad. Through examination and analysis maybe there are clues to the prevention of such a bloodsoaked chain of events ever occurring again. And if there aren’t signs as to this and you’re not a moralistic twat on Facebook then you’ll realise that its still just a really interesting topic, no matter how grisly.

It seems to me that its the people who try to suppress and prevent others from investigating the darker incidents from history that have more to hide and conceal themselves. After all, Fred West’s favourite movies were exclusively made by Disney as he didn’t approve of violence in films. And we all know how fucked up he was.

Day 25- 31 Days of Halloween- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Day 25- 31 Days of Halloween- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

This film was actually made in 1986 (although I’ve read it was actually shot in 1985) but not released until 1990 as there were censorship problems as to the graphic nature of the film’s proceedings.

The film is loosely based on the lives of real life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole.

Henry lives with Otis. They both met in prison when Henry was serving a sentence for murdering his mother. Otis’ sister comes to stay with them and instantly falls for Henry. Peppered throughout the film are random victims of Henry shown in differing locales and killed using differing methods. Henry continues to kill but we start to see the involvement of Otis. There is even a scene in which Henry passes down his wisdom regarding serial murder to Otis. Henry now has a new partner in crime. Or does he?

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The first time I heard about this film was on a TV review show which had celebrities talking about new media. Malcolm McLaren was chosen to watch and talk about Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and had said that it was so shocking that he hadn’t slept since seeing it! The ultimate recommendation for a horror movie.

The first time I actually got to see the film was when it was released on video in 1990 in the UK. However Henry’s butchery wasn’t the only I was to witness but also that of the BBFC. They had a massive issue with the scene in which one of the random victims is shown to be a dead naked woman sat on the toilet with a broken bottle in her mouth and the home invasion that Henry and Otis not only commit but also film on a camcorder. The film is now uncut in the UK and common sense has prevailed.

Henry feels more like a grimy, gritty documentary which was shot by a silent conspirator rather than a glossy, polished Hollywood film in which the police arrest the assailants at the end. There are no police in Henry as the transient main character moves on and the killings seemingly continue.

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The arrival of this film signified a major new hallmark in the horror genre as this film was so brilliant executed (pun not intended), directed and acted. I can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting the role of Henry other than Michael Rooker. He performs the central character with a very strange, very unsettling disconnect and utter lack of emotion, almost like he has a forcefield around him. Tom Towles needs mentioning also as the sleazy, rat-like Otis. Try and watch his performance without your skin crawling.

A perfect film that was in fact lauded by critics including Siskel and Ebert (yes you read that right! They praised the film whilst taking the opportunity to further criticise the Friday the 13th films. Bore off!) I remember at the time of GoodFellas reading a Martin Scorsese interview in which he said that the film had seriously disturbed him too and that it thought it was amazing. The film was so loved by critics that it was a film which helped with the introduction of a new classification for the MPAA. That classification was NC-17 (it had been suggested that the new certification would be A for Arthouse- films that were felt to be of artistic merit but somewhat violent and/or sexual). However NC-17 replaced the old X rating and the stigma remained. Some cinemas still won’t show NC-17 films, some newspapers won’t advertise these films either.

The film has now been restored with the gorgeous looking and sounding 4K print being released on Blu ray. Now thats karma. Lets hope theres a similar karma when it comes to the MPAA’s ratings system.

An outstanding film. 5 out of 5.

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Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer 4K Restoration Confirmed

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer 4K Restoration Confirmed

Dark Sky have just confirmed that Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer to get the 4K treatment.

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Over at Bluray.com its quoted that ‘In celebration of its 30th anniversary, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer returns with a thrilling, cinematic presentation that cements its reputation as one of the most harrowing and original American films of all time. Dark Sky Films, a division of MPI Media Group, proudly presents it in a brand-new 4K scan and restoration from the 16mm original camera negatives, and featuring a new 5.1 audio mix from the stereo 35mm mag reels, all approved by director John McNaughton.’

There is a limited cinema release before the Bluray release also.