HACKSAW: Exploring Horror in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

*As always, some spoilers ahead….

I was not planning on writing a review for this movie. I wasn’t planning on watching this movie. While I love true crime, I don’t usually love any adaptations of it (Mindhunters clearly excluded). I find most media adaptations of true crime to be either wildly inaccurate or to miss “the point” entirely. While I do enjoy the mental exercise of exploring a serial killer’s mindset or ethos, I find that most media adaptions do not capture a serial killer’s ethos so much as they serve to glorify or idolize the killers and/or their crimes. More often than not, a serial killer is positioned as if they were a rock-star rather than a brutal murderer, their crimes portrayed as these jewels in a bloody crown. Victims are also often entirely dehumanized by being treated as secondary characters in their own murders if acknowledged at all which greatly troubles me. For me (and probably many others), I don’t like true crime because I worship perpetrators of violence and pain as being a “step above the rest”. I treat my interest in true crime as an act of bearing witness, a continuing observance for victims, ensuring that they are not forgotten and the crimes their perpetrators committed against them are not forgotten. True crime reminds me of the value of every individual life. For that reason, I find most adaptions of true crime stories to be shallow pantomimes or shameless cash-grabs, profiting off of the pain and suffering of victims and their communities. In many ways, I find Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019) to be as guilty of these sins as Ted Bundy was of brutally killing 30+ women. As far as a true crime tribute movie goes, this was a dud for me. In terms of horror, though, this movie does create some truly horrifying moments I’d like to discuss.

In this review, I’m going to try to tread lightly. My focus is mainly going to be on how the film creates these tense, dread-inducing moments for viewers. Again, I do not think the movie itself is horrifying nor are the portrayals of Ted Bundy by Zac Efron or Liz Kendall by Lily Collins particularly note-worthy but I do think the film crafted some deeply unsettling scenes. Much of the horror in these scenes I want to discuss does rely on viewers having some background knowledge in Bundy’s crimes so, fair warning, I will briefly discuss those crimes throughout as respectfully as possible. 

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“As we all binge The Bundy Tapes on @Netflix and share the trailer for the Zac Efron movie, please remember the victims. These women all had hopes and dreams. They should all have movies made about them. I always try to remember what these monsters took away.” Known Victims of Ted Bundy from Billy Jensen

Here we go~

This movie mainly revolves around the “relationship” between Ted Bundy and Liz Kendall, a divorcee and a woman Bundy dated briefly during his time as an active serial killer. (The name Liz Kendall appears to be one of a number of aliases for Elizabeth Kloepfer.) Liz has a young daughter that Bundy also interacts with, acting as a pseudo-father figure. For context, prior to meeting Liz, Bundy is already suspected of having murdered anywhere from a couple – several women. To this day, it’s a bit uncertain but we can confirm that he had already murdered women by 1974 and he started seeing Liz in ‘69. Being that Bundy has confessed to 30+ murders, it seems relatively safe to assume that he was murdering and assaulting women throughout his relationship with Liz. I’m pointing this out because the movie dies not focus on Bundy’s crimes. In fact, the movie is almost entirely told from Liz’s perspective. And, seemingly, she has no knowledge of Bundy’s criminality. We are only afforded brief glimpses into Bundy’s perspective and, even then, we are still mostly on the outside looking in. The unsettling nature of many of the scenes in this movie comes from the interesting juxtaposition between what we know of Bundy and what we see through Liz’s eyes. 

Regardless of whether you as a viewer know exactly how many women Bundy brutally murdered and then mutilated after the fact, I would say most viewers know Bundy was a prolific murderer. So, when the camera focuses on Efron’s hands caressing Collins’ neck during an intimate scene, there is this inherent tension. His hands wrapping around her neck are seen through Liz’s eyes as this gentle, intimate gesture but we as viewers know what those hands are capable of. It’s a gesture of trust that we know is misplaced and misguided. So, even though the camera only pauses on his hands on her neck for a brief moment and even though it’s early in the film and we haven’t even seen a glimpse of violence, there is this menace in this gesture made by this man named Bundy. It’s foreshadowing in the film, yes, but it’s also a kind of hindsight? The foreshadowing angle works here only because of viewers’ inside knowledge of and insight from real-life, historical events. We are terrified for not only Liz but of what has happened and what is going to become.

Something I will give credit to Efron for in this film is his attention to micro-expressions and posturing. I think a lot of the power in the unsettling scenes I’m discussing comes from Efron’s ability to subtly convey that something is “off” with his character. He stares just a little too intently at his hands around Liz’s neck. When he’s pulled over by a cop shortly after that scene, we get to see this glimpse into how Bundy perfects his composure for the world. Right before the cop approached Bundy’s signature VW Beetle, Efron looks dead-eyed at the camera, closes his eyes, and then slips on the grin. The charismatic grin, the genteel and unassuming mask he used to talk several unfortunately kind women to their deaths. It doesn’t work with this cop for a variety of external circumstances, but it’s a deeply unsettling moment. It’s like seeing Michael Myers or Jason without their masks on. Flipping that switch, going from empty to full of charm is a known characteristic of many serial killers, especially those who are organized like Bundy. Seeing it in action helps remind viewers that we are not watching a tragic love story. We are watching a movie about a psychopathic killer who does not feel love or other emotions like we do. I wish the movie went further emphasizing this but casting a “heartthrob” like Zac Efron kind of ensures there’s only so far you can take that. I mean, there are still people today who think Bundy’s eyes look soulful instead of empty….

Anyway, Efron flips this switch several times throughout the film with varying degrees of success. For me, no later scenes were as compelling as this first scene. It occurs right before he’s arrested on suspicion of being the man responsible for killing women up at Lake Sammamish as well as for trying to kidnap another woman (who picked him out of a lineup). So, this scene serves as our first introduction to the real Bundy. For me, watching his mask slip puts the idea into our minds that his “relationship” with Liz is a kind of performance, another extension of this performance. Again, I wish they pushed this further but I digress. It still serves its purpose here.

The next scene I found quite disturbing occurs when Bundy is at the library one evening, presumably studying/reviewing law under the pretense of preparing for his upcoming trial (for the kidnapping case; I believe he hasn’t been charged with what happened at Sammamish yet(?)). He takes a seat in a secluded area in the library that is occupied by only three other female patrons. He makes eye contact and smiles at them, catching one girl’s eye at the table next to him. There’s a clear glimmer in his gaze. The girl is also clearly dazzled by Bundy. She’d go with him, if he asked. He know this. We know it. It’s in the crook of Bundy’s smile. It’s so easy — That’s what this scene emphasizes for me. How easy it was for him to bait the lure and make a catch. It was so easy. We saw how easy it was in the scene. That’s what makes it terrifying to me. Again, to some extent, the horror of this scene relies on us having some external knowledge of Bundy’s MO + crimes but I think this scene also conveys how easy it can be for criminals to pervert everyday interactions into something wicked. It emphasizes how unsuspecting we are, how vulnerable. That girl thinks he’s smiling at her but he’s really smiling at the knowledge that he’s “got one”. It’s the difference between a predator and its prey. Had that girl not looked down at the newspaper conveniently placed at her table and seen the picture of Bundy beside the article accusing him of kidnapping and of possibly murder, she’d have gone with him anywhere. That is horrifying. It makes us wonder would we have gone?

One of Bundy’s most notorious tricks relied on exploiting vulnerability and kindness. He would pose as an invalid, usually someone with a broken limb, and ask women for assistance with loading something large into his car “just over there”. He’d lure a woman (who just wanted to do a kind deed) to a secluded area, stuff her in his car, maybe beat her over the head with a tire iron (if he could find it), and then murder her. He infamously and successfully used this trick twice in one day in broad daylight up at the previously mentioned Lake Sammamish. He’d revisit the graves of his victims, too, and engage in necrophilia, further defiling and degrading the victims. You don’t usually hear about that when whatever biopic is going on about how charming and handsome Bundy could be. We still don’t even know who some of these poor women are but we sure know Bundy was handsome and charming. Bundy weaponized not only his charm and good looks but also our own vulnerabilities and kindness. He preyed upon both. Bundy is always characterized as this handsome and charming man, even when referencing his murders, and all I can ever think about is how much insatiable cruelty and ugliness his pretty mask hid. To that end, I think these early scenes in this movie provide a better glimpse into his maniacal character than other adaptions but I also think they still fall terribly short. 

I mention this because in the latter half of the movie, I feel like there is some attempt to address Bundy’s ugliness and cruelty. We see it in these incessant and, really, harassing phone calls made to Liz, who broke up with him after he was convicted of kidnapping and awaiting several murder charges out-of-state. (Good choice.) Though his tone is relatively kind, there’s this unsettling obsessive quality to the calls.  We see how disturbing the calls are in Liz’s reaction to them. Her shoulders hunch and she flinches. She scrunches her eyes closed, holds her breath till the ringing stops. These calls hurt her and still Bundy persists. Earlier we saw how little Bundy cared about Liz’s time and well-being when he called her several times in a row at her place of work from the courthouse just so he could tell her about this book he likes. It was inconsiderate but harmless then. He was just monopolizing her time. Now, Bundy is monopolizing her headspace. She’s clearly this object of obsession to him, this thing to possess. If he truly loved her like he claims, he’d respect her telling him to leave her alone. But, he doesn’t. Love is about appreciation, not possession and Bundy clearly does not appreciate Liz nor what she wants. He only cares about what he wants. He’s like that horrible “nice guy” ex we’ve all had who just can’t take “No” for an answer and doesn’t understand why we’re “being like that” but like multiplied to an eleven…. and also he’s a serial killer of women who looked just like Liz. (You know, usual ex behavior.)

This narcissism, self-centeredness, and complete lack of regard for everyone else is put on display when the final verdict for Bundy is read at the end of the movie. (He was arrested for the kidnapping and being questioned about the Lake Sammamish murders as well as some murders committed in Washington state before a slew of daring escapes derailed that. Clowns and their tricks, yeah?) After a sham/circus of a capital murder trial (the first ever televised trial in America), Bundy is found guilty and sentenced to death by the state of Florida for killing two women in the Chi Omega sorority house and brutalizing two other women in the sorority at Florida State University. The judge feels sorry for punishing such a “bright, young man” so severely but for crimes as “extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile” such a punishment must be doled out. Since the movie does not go into it, I would like to elaborate here for a moment on the severity of this attack before discussing Bundy’s reaction.

Bundy broke into the Chi Omega sorority house in the early hours of January 15th, 1978 and brutally raped, bludgeoned, and murdered Margaret Bowman (21) and Lisa Levy (20). He beat Bowman with a fire log while she was sleeping and then garroted her with a nylon stocking. Next, he beat and strangled Levy, biting off one of her nipples and leaving a deep bite mark on her buttocks. She was raped with a hairspray bottle. Kathy Kleiner and Karen Chandler were also brutally beaten by Bundy during this attack but they survived. Both suffered broken jaws and severe lacerations. Chandler, a dancer, suffered a concussion that left her with a permanent case of vertigo and unable to dance again. He probably would’ve killed them too had he not been scared off by an approaching vehicle’s headlights. This whole siege lasted fifteen minutes for him, lifetimes for the victims who survived.

It was a savage attack. Now, we call this kind of attack a spree kill, indicative of a chaotic and disorganized killer. Or, an enraged one on the verge of being caught. If you did not know the details of this attack or only knew what the movie depicted of the crime, Bundy’s reaction may have been slightly more palatable. There’s more plausibility about whether or not he committed the crimes. (Later DNA evidence would confirm his responsibility.) Bundy’s response to the guilty verdict he receives though is essentially, “Why are you doing this to me?” It’s been his spiel through the whole movie. Why are you doing this to me? Me. It’s all about him. Whenever Bundy addresses any of the charges against him, he always deflects in this way. It speaks to a deep sense of narcissism, of self-centeredness, and to a singular worldview. When the verdict is read, Bundy even cuts a glance to the jury he had a hand in selecting for his trial, clearly confused by how they didn’t see things from his perspective. How could he have been so wrong in his selections? How could they not see? But, they did see. They say the moments we as viewers did, where the mask slipped. They saw what Liz saw when she called the tip line and gave them Bundy’s name as a possibly suspect in the Lake Sammamish murders. What’s horrifying about this moment is how detached and inhuman Bundy appears. He’s more concerned about his own perceived persecution (for crimes he very much did commit) than he is about the victims of these crimes. He can’t even come up with convincing tears. I don’t know if Efron was purposefully being unconvincing or if it’s just bad acting, but it’s fantastically unsettling.

Now, all this said, the last piece of Bundy’s mask does not shatter until the very end of the movie. This last scene is arguably the most horrifying in the movie and is what convinced me to write a review of this movie at all. After fifteen years, Liz, now a successful businesswoman and married to a man who loves her, decides to finally visit Bundy on death row. He’s going to be executed shortly but he’s been staving off the execution by confessing to any and all unsolved murders he can. The end is closing in though. So, Liz decides to pay a final visit. It’s more for herself than for him. She wants to confess to Bundy that she gave his name to the tip line all those years ago (which ultimately led to his capture) and she wants to confront Bundy about his crimes one last time. He’s yet to truly confess them — to Liz, at least. This whole time he’s maintained his innocence. He tells Liz he’s only confessing to unsolved murder cases to bide time on death row to reopen his case. But, we know and Liz knows that all his appeals have been used up and, ultimately, the right man is going to be held accountable for the crimes in question. But, Liz wants to hear him say so.

The camera cuts back and forth from Liz to Bundy during this scene. There’s only a clear pane of glass between the two. A transparent barrier. A two-way phone, a thread, is all that connects the two. Liz produces pictures from one of the murders and asks Ted where the woman’s head is located. Bundy denies her, gives a barely perceivable shake of his head. Why are you doing this to me? Liz presses him. Their heavy breathing fogs up the glass between them. Bundy continues to refuse and refute. Why are you doing this to me? Liz was honest with him and now she wants him to be honest with her. This is his last chance. “Where’s her head, Ted?” How… how did you do it? He’s not going to answer. How can he control her if he can’t control her perception of him? He can’t answer. Not to her. Not to himself. He won’t…. until he does. In the fogged glass between them that blurred line, Bundy slowly scrawls the word HACKSAW. It’s similar to how Danny writes REDRUM  in The Shining (1977). The effect is also similar.

Liz’s expression just drops. The only way to describe how she looks in this moment is utterly, bone-chillingly horrified. Everything she feared is true and the man she once thought she loved is a monster. HACKSAW is a confession — the confession that every detective lined up in the hallway to come in after Liz is hoping to receive. It’s the confession none of them will get. Liz flees the room, finally and horribly free, and Bundy wipes the glass and his expression clear, ready for the next performance. 

It’s not the most horrifying scene I’ve ever seen but it’s in my current top ten. This scene almost makes the rest of this considerably boring and “meh” movie worth it. I don’t even think the brief flashback to Efron chasing a woman with the hacksaw and hitting her over the head is necessary, to be honest. Though I’ve been very critical thus far of the lack of violence that this film touched upon in their portrayal of Bundy, I think HACKSAW conveys so much horror and violence in and of itself that a visual representation becomes unnecessary. Like Liz, I feel like we should be left to imagine what we missed and review what we thought we knew with new eyes. This scenes makes the movie being told from Liz’s perspective make sense. Even though we as viewers know what Bundy did, we are as horrified as Liz. 

****

Hey~ Hope you enjoyed this true crime/horror-esque review. I’m a bit hesitant to blend the two but I hope I did both aspects of this film justice. I didn’t particularly like this movie or want to promote it but there were some scenes from it that I just couldn’t get out of my head. If you saw this movie and have any thoughts on it or on Bundy, I would love to hear from you.

*Some of the info I got on Bundy’s crimes came from The Last Podcast on the Left‘s episodes (99 & 100, respectively) on Bundy which you can catch on Spotify. Hail yourselves~