Why Zac Efron is exactly the right Ted Bundy

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(CNN) — "I'm more popular than Disney World," croons azure-eyed Disney alumni Zac Efron. The line, which might have been lifted from one of his vintage high school movies, is just one jarring punctuation mark in the trailer for "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," a film based on the true story of Theodore Bundy. Efron stars as the serial killer, rapist, kidnapper and necrophile who confessed to murdering at least 30 women and girls during the 1970s.

The 90-second trailer, which brims with shots of a ripped Efron winking and de-shirting, has been met with outrage and dismay from many who believe that it glamorizes and hyper-sexualizes Bundy, who was executed for his crimes in 1989. Perversely, the overwhelming focus on Efron's looks since the trailer's release echoes a similar obsession with Bundy's appearance when he came to trial in 1979, when newspapers noted his handsomeness and charm; at the time, the New York Times called him "Kennedyesque."

 

If the point of films based on true stories is to reflect life, that is exactly what it has achieved.

The glamorization of serial killers in films like "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile" are inherently brazen, because they draw on real-life suffering and death -- and their goal is always to finesse those elements to engage an audience. It is as important therefore to ask which stories are worth retelling as it is to judge how well they are told. If a good-looking actor portraying a murderer known for flaunting his good looks is offensive -- the inference being that superficiality is offensive -- we would do well to be less superficial in our assessment of these films and their subject matter.

Another film about a killer, "Detainment," which is up for Best Live Action Short Film at the Oscars, tells the true story of the murder of three-year-old James Bulger near Liverpool, England, in 1993. His murderers were two other children, 10 year-olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The boys led James away from his mother in a shopping center, then across town to a railway track, where they tortured and beat him until he was dead.

Both Thompson and Venables were both charged with abduction and murder as adults, because they were over the age of 10, the legal point at which a person in the UK assumes criminal responsibility for their actions. In 2010, Maggie Atkinson, the children's commissioner for England, called for that age to be raised to 12. She said 10 was "too young," in light of the Bulger case.

James's mother Denise Fergus has vehemently protested both the making and nomination of "Detainment," which is based on real footage of interviews with Thompson and Venables in custody. The trailer shows the children distressed as they answer police questions, eyes brimming with tears. They look far less sinister than Efron's slick, measured Bundy, and the sympathy they provoke appeals to a far deeper instinct.

Vincent Lambe, who directed "Detainment," has protested that many have missed the point of the film, saying: "It's to ask questions and to challenge the audience because I think we've got a responsibility to try and make sense of what happened."

This provocation -- or more to the point, the acute distress of Bulger's parents, is difficult if not impossible to justify. There is no lesson, only sadness, and the regurgitation of bitter, fruitless pain. That pain has drawn far less attention over the last few weeks than Efron's hewn jawline. Tellingly, there are no planned screenings of "Detainment" in the UK.

The outrage "Extremely Wicked" has sparked is understandable. A film which deliberately amplifies Bundy's vainglorious courtroom showboating and manipulative sexual appeal is exactly what he would have wished for. It is yet another example of a male serial killer whose gruesome actions drew more fascination than the lives he stole from his exclusively female victims. But it is a portrayal of what really happens, all too often, rather than a template for how these circumstances should be dealt with in future.

The film's director, Joe Berlinger, has responded to the backlash, saying: "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."

One of Bundy's surviving victims, Kathy Kleiner Rubin, who Bundy savagely attacked in her Florida State University sorority house in 1978, has explained why the film's depiction, while in her opinion exaggerated, makes sense. "I believe that in order to show him exactly the way he was, it's not really glorifying him, but it's showing him, and when they do say positive and wonderful things about him... that's what they saw, that's what Bundy wanted you to see," she said. "The movie does glorify it more than I think it should be. But like I said, I think everyone should see it and understand him as what he was, even when he was the perfect son."

Rubin stressed that the most important point was the message behind the film, which demonstrates how Bundy would use his wiles to lure female victims. "He had different tactics that he used for people to help him get in cars or do things," she explained. "In your gut, if you just feel that something doesn't feel right, just say no."

To lose that that uncomfortable straight-on view of Bundy, and the effect he had on his real-life audience, would be to lose much of the cautionary point of the story. The sexualization of handsome men who do bad things, and the amplification of their narrative over their victims' is a disturbing phenomenon, but a very real one. It occurs again and again in cinema and on TV, from Jack The Ripperblockbusters to Black Dahlia re-imaginings with Chris Pine. Most worryingly, the fleeting fuss made about movies which glorify violent criminals from our past is too-often not borne out in the present when attractive men do awful things.

Jeremy Meeks' mugshot alone garnered him the nickname "hot felon" when it went viral in 2015. Meeks was convicted of federal charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and grand theft. While Meeks was incarcerated in 2014, Public Information Officer Joseph Silva called him "one of the most violent criminals in the Stockton area." In 2017, Vogue described him as a "buff bad boy."

If we are disturbed that a serial killer like Theodore Bundy was good looking, and find it upsetting to be reminded so in this retelling, we are completely missing the point of what constitutes evil.

Too many violent men are able to get away with their crimes for too long, because we would prefer not to recognize that handsomeness and brutality can walk hand in hand. In proving ourselves so distracted by Zac Efron -- to the extent that far more offensive films slip under the radar, we are falling into the same superficial trap. The warning sign we should heed is not an ugly face, but the inability to look beyond a pretty one.