Our cultural obsession with serial murderers isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and in recent years the public appetite for gruesome details about our most notorious criminals has only intensified. However, with the lives of most of the heavy hitters covered so exhaustively by authors, filmmakers and podcasters, the real question seems to be how much more original content can we squeeze out of these gruesome campfire tales? Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman, a recent dramatisation of Bundy’s reign of terror, appears to answer: not a great deal.
In 1974, Ted Bundy (Chad Michael Murray) is a Utah resident, using his inoffensive charms to lull young women into a false sense of security, before abducting and murdering them. Hot on his heels is Kathleen McChesney (Holland Roden), a sex crimes cop battling for the victims in the face of an indifferent police department, riddled with sexism and nepotism. Her cause is bolstered by Robert Ressler (Jake Hays), an F.B.I. profiler from the Behavioral Science Unit, attached to the case to help build a psychological picture of the killer.
We spend a great deal of time with Chad Michael Murray’s Bundy and, although the film is determined to paint him in as simplistic and clichéd a light as possible, his performance is more captivating than expected. Most of the time, the film treats Bundy like a standard slasher killer – skulking in the shadows, glaring at victims from the dark while a synth soundtrack throbs in the background. However, in scenes where he is given lines, Murray’s Bundy is deliberately a little off. This is not the suave and disarming turn offered up by Zac Effron in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, but something altogether more unsettling and seedy.
Elsewhere, Lin Shaye, in an all too brief appearance as Bundy’s mother, manages to inject a great deal of pathos into her minute role. She performs excellently as a parent putting up a front of pride and defiance while suppressing uncertainty and guilt over her son’s clear responsibility for the murders.
The production is competent but no effort is made to disguise the lack of budget, and the whole project has a TV-movie vibe. Visual references to the slasher films of the ’70s and ’80s do nothing to dispel this. Sinister synth music and dynamic lighting choices have become such a staple of serial killer media that they fail to strike an original tone. A hallucinatory scene in which Bundy appears to lose his grip on reality, complete with trippy BDSM imagery, is an interesting choice. Nonetheless, it is somehow less engaging than the mundane interactions that Murray manages to make creepy and unnerving.
This, unfortunately, is where we begin to run out of positives for the movie. Almost all of the dialogue reads like a first draft, and the actors are forced to either embrace the schlocky campness or struggle gamely to wring any life out of it. We see this dynamic at play in the early police station scenes, where the chief and his idiotic, sexist son seem to be enjoying their roles as crude pantomime villains. Meanwhile, Holland Roden has some real heavy lifting to do as the put-upon detective protagonist, and the script gives her precious little to work with.
This thin characterisation becomes far more of a problem when we move onto the portrayals of the victims. In recent years, the explosion of true crime fandom has brought with it a sense of moral responsibility to focus on the victims of crime as individuals. Many creators of true crime content feel an ethical duty to highlight the tragedy of these situations without glamourising the perpetrators. In American Boogeyman, all of the victims are presented as interchangeable and bland, with only a handful of lines to share, most of which are generic and forgettable. Meanwhile, Bundy himself is just Michael Myers; a paper-thin cipher with little personality beyond his desire for violence.
Director Daniel Farrands’ M.O. seems to be to capitalise on the resurgent interest in true crime with a series of disposable projects that reduce real-life stories of tragedy to generic slasher schlock. His past efforts in this field, including the controversial The Haunting of Sharon Tate, conform to this basic template. They are proficiently made, but we can’t help wondering who they’re for. True crime fans will find that they lack authenticity and fail to add anything meaningful to these well-known stories. Similarly, slasher fans will find little here to satisfy their bloodthirsty appetites. Both sets of fans are likely to find that the characterisation and pace are lacking. We do not have particularly high hopes for his upcoming Aileen Wournos: American Boogeywoman, released later this year, which promises to be more of the same, albeit with a slightly more cumbersome title.