Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes review — A compelling but sketchy portrait of a psychopath

Rohini Nair

Feb 07, 2019 16:20:05 IST

The title of Joe Berlinger's Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is a bit of a misnomer, in that it creates the expectation of a full and frank discussion of how Bundy came to be among the most notorious serial killers in the US. However, Bundy — who is believed to have raped and murdered over 30 women, mostly during the 1970s — didn't confess to his crimes, or at least not until mere days before his death sentence was to be carried out. Even then, as this four-part documentary series makes clear, Bundy's confession was not so much a “taking responsibility” for his crimes as much as a last-ditch attempt to stave off his execution.

Berlinger's docu-series comes to Netflix just as his feature film on Bundy — Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, starring Zac Efron — has had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

Side note: Utah was where Bundy lived for a while, after victimising several women in the Washington area. In Utah, his spree continued (as also in neighbouring Colorado and Idaho), and he was arrested and convicted here for the attempted kidnapping of 18-year-old Carol DaRonch. DaRonch was the only one who got away; all of Bundy's other victims (the youngest of whom was 12) met brutal ends — some of them snatched from their places of residence or study, some bludgeoned to death in their beds; raped, their remains scattered in the desolate American wilderness.

 Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes review — A compelling but sketchy portrait of a psychopath

From Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Image via Netflix

Berlinger's film has met with mixed reviews: there was a backlash to its trailer from viewers who felt Bundy was being glamourised; after its Sundance screening, Efron has been lauded for his portrayal, but Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile seems to have divided audiences. Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes elicits similarly mixed reactions: The premise — Bundy in his own words — is immediately interesting; the final product, not so much.

This is surprising, because Ted Bundy is described as being among the most charismatic of serial killers. He was handsome, personable, with a degree in Psychology, and enrolled in a Law course. The footage of his courtroom appearances and interviews with TV journalists indicates that he could be charming when he chose. So why does “Bundy in his own words” ultimately have not as much impact as one might expect? Well, because Bundy lied — blatantly.

From Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Image via Netflix

From Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Image via Netflix

The Ted Bundy Tapes rely for the most part on a series of audio recordings — 150 hours of conversations between the journalist Stephen G Michaud and Bundy, then incarcerated in Florida. Bundy had approached Michaud with the idea of having him write a biography. Michaud teamed up with veteran journalist Hugh Aynesworth for the project; while Aynesworth travelled around the country reinvestigating the cases against Bundy, Michaud interviewed him in prison. As Michaud himself says, it was frustrating going: For one, Bundy claimed he had been falsely implicated, refusing to talk about the crimes (until Michaud hit upon the idea of making Bundy “analyse” the profile of the individual who must have actually perpetrated the murders). For another, he presented a false/idealised picture of everything from his childhood and family life, to his stature in high school, and his life thereafter. Michaud and Aynesworth's book — Ted Bundy: Conversations With A Killer — was published in 1989, the year of Bundy's execution.

Firstpost at Sundance: Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is incredibly problematic, shallow

What made Bundy among the world's most infamous serial killers? Was it the sheer numbers of his victims? (There are others, like John Wayne Gacy, who also murdered as many as 30 young men.) Was it the brutality of his crimes? (Then what of Jeffrey Dahmer, who once drilled a hole in a 14-year-old victim's skull, injecting him with hydrochloric acid?) Bundy's victims — all beautiful young women — were not high profile in the way Charles Manson's were. Was it then due to his persona, his looks? His seemingly effortless deceptions and guile? For all the many attempts to “decode” him — the books (there have been at least 30), the films (about seven) — is Bundy any less an enigma to us today than he was in the '70s and the '80?

From Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Image via Netflix

From Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Image via Netflix

The docu-series by Berlinger (known for his work on the pioneering Paradise Lost true crime trilogy) spans four episodes and as many hours. Bundy's conversations with Michaud form the primary source material, but Berlinger painstakingly retraces the details of the former's life — from his childhood and college years, through his crimes across seven states, being apprehended by the authorities, escape attempts and time on death row; what the various people who encountered him thought of Bundy — how they were taken in.

Footage from his trials (the proceedings were allowed to be televised) — at which Bundy represented himself — provide the most compelling portrait of the man: As he argues his defence, Bundy presents an odd mixture of self-assurance and empty bombast. He cross examines witnesses confidently — but his line of questioning rarely yields points in his favour. He distracts the court by complaining about the conditions in his jail cell, dwells on injustices — real and imagined. The court is surprisingly indulgent toward him, allowing Bundy his rants. In fact, when pronouncing the death sentence for Bundy, Judge Edward Cowart condemned the "extremely wicked, shockingly evil" nature of his actions — even while stating that he would have "loved to have (Bundy) practice law before (him)".

Also on Firstpost — Abducted In Plain Sight review: Stranger than fiction, this true-crime doc indicts a wily predator and parental inaction

These courtroom scenes present another aspect of the Bundy case: his allure to women. "Fangirls" crowded the courtroom during the trial, their rapt expressions caught on cameras, their fawning over Bundy — equal parts horror and fascination — pretty morbid in light of the crimes he was in the dock for. (Apparently, the Netflix documentary has led to a similar "fandom" for Bundy in the time since its release, with many finding his looks and charisma overwhelming enough to overlook his preferred pastime of bashing women's heads in.)

From Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Image via Netflix

From Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. Image via Netflix

Berlinger also attempts to present some sort of narrative about the times during which Bundy operated, America during the 1970s — a decade that saw the Vietnam War, Watergate, Roe vs Wade, the first spacecraft landings on Mars, among other landmark events. 'Flower Power' was at its height in the late '60s and early '70s — around the same time that Bundy was committing most of his murders. When law enforcement had yet to understand the phenomenon of 'serial' killers. While laudable, Berlinger's attempt doesn't yield as clear a sociological picture as he might have hoped for.

It is the run-up to Bundy's execution then, that Berlinger's Conversations With A Killer captures best. As the prison complex readies to carry out the death sentence, outside, huge crowds — mainly young men — gather. There is a festive, frat party air to this gathering: the men chant slogans, drink beer and laugh; enterprising vendors carry on brisk sales in t-shirts with illustrations of the electric chair, and badges/souvenirs with anti-Bundy logos. (It's all very reminiscent of the Black Mirror Season 4 episode, 'Black Museum': For a small price, viewers to the 'museum' can 'execute' the digital clone of a convict, recreating his death — over and over. They even get a small memento — a keychain that captures the convict in his death throes — to take away.) When the lights in the prison complex indicate that Bundy has been executed, a rousing cheer goes up. The devil is dead. Or is he?

Rating: ★★★

Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here:

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2019 16:29:47 IST