Be it a podcast, book, television series or film, it seems almost impossible at the moment to consume any form of media that is not obsessed with the true-crime genre, and especially the serial killer. The stereotype of this super-intelligent, hyper-violent individual is fascinating to a modern society defined by 24-hour news cycles and the ceaseless analysing of human cruelty. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that America’s most famous serial killer is currently the subject of not one but two much-discussed true crime pieces, made by the same director and released just days apart. Joe Berlinger examines Ted Bundy through the Netflix docu-series Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and the biographical thriller Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
The trailer of Berlinger’s film has already generated far more controversy than the Netflix series. This is mainly due to the casting of Zac Efron as Bundy, the slick, upbeat tone of the trailer, and the distasteful idea that a Hollywood biopic has been made not about a politician, or a musician, or a sportsperson, but a man who raped and murdered up to eighty women. The apparently more sombre docu-series was released to much less criticism on 24 January – the 30th anniversary of Bundy’s execution.
Conversations with a Killer has a format more common, and ostensibly more appropriate, for the true-crime genre. It carefully re-traces events alongside talking-head interviews with journalists, police officers, and even a survivor. What sets it apart from the genre are the eponymous tapes: 100 hours of conversation between Bundy and the journalist Stephen Michaud, recorded on death row in 1980. These conversations are as compelling as they are disturbing, and promise more insight into the pathology of a killer than most other true-crime documentaries can. However, the use of this audio has one key problem. By allowing Bundy to tell his own story, Michaud and later Berlinger cede control of a true-crime narrative to the criminal himself. Much of the tapes and the corresponding interviews and footage revolve around Bundy denying the crimes he committed. In the face of his refusal to focus, Michaud eventually allowed Bundy to describe his crimes in the third person, effectively granting his desire to create, in Michaud’s words, a ‘celebrity biography’ of himself.
This notion of a true-crime investigation turning into a glamorous biography is central to the flaws of Conversations with a Killer as well as to the controversy surrounding Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. Whilst Berlinger’s film has been accused of romanticising and even fetishising Bundy as a kind of twisted heartthrob, the docu-series seems to be a different side of the same coin. Rather than present a glamorised image of Bundy through controversial decisions in casting and cinematic style, Conversations with a Killer does something perhaps more dangerous. Its orthodox style cannot hide the disturbing power that Bundy wields over the various journalists and filmmakers that attempt to explain or expose him, which is the same power that he wielded for years over police officers and lawyers – and, most importantly, over his victims. Aside from one survivor, their voices are not heard in the documentary, and their physical presence is little more than an anonymised cluster of images, instead of the revealing video footage that Bundy himself is often the focus of.
Berlinger’s intellectual fascination with Bundy is clear in his devotion of two projects to him. Yet each project, in their different ways, seem happy to allow him control of the narrative, posthumously granting Bundy’s request to “tell the story as best as I can” – meaning two opportunities are missed for the true story, and his victims’ stories, to be heard.
Image Credit: Mollymolly via Flickr