Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes review: 'It attempts to imbue Bundy with a mystique that was never there'
If serial killer Ted Bundy hadn’t fried in the electric chair in 1989, he would surely be sitting in prison right now watching Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes – and loving every minute of it.
Directed by Joe Berlinger, who also has a fictionalised feature film starring Zac Efron as Bundy coming out soon, this Netflix four-parter gives Bundy what he always craved most: attention.
He was a psychopath and a sociopath, but also a raging narcissist. People are fascinated by murderers, which is why true-crime series are so wildly popular right now, but nobody was ever as fascinated by Ted Bundy as Ted Bundy was.
Conversations With A Killer does exactly what Bundy would have wanted a documentary series about the killings to do – it attempts to imbue him with a mystique that was never there. It truly is all about him.
The supposed selling point of the series is the extracts from the 150 hours of taped conversations Bundy had with rookie journalist Stephen Michaud and seasoned news reporter Hugh Aynesworth in 1980, while trying every trick in the legal book to delay his execution.
Frankly, the tapes, which Michaud and Aynesworth turned into a book in 2000, are little more than a diversion, a MacGuffin. Anyone watching Conversations With A Killer expecting to receive an insight into Bundy’s twisted mind won’t find it here.
The “conversations”, which are used sparingly over the series’ four-and-a-quarter hours, aren’t really conversations at all; they’re monologues. Bundy rambles on and on about everything and anything (but mostly about himself). It’s self-regarding, cod-philosophical, pseudo-intellectual tripe.
He never confesses to any of the murders; that would come nine years later, only days before his execution, and purely as a last, desperate attempt to further stall his appointment with the electric chair.
The closest he comes to admitting his guilt is when he talks in the third person, theorising about the type of “personality” who committed the murders. It’s the narcissism taking over again. Bundy is showing off, playing to his gallery of two.
Bundy was famously charming and urbane, which is what made it so easy for him to lure his victims – all young women, except for Kimberly Leach, a 12-year-old child – to their doom.
However, beneath the charm there was nothing but hollowness. He was a mediocrity, a self-obsessed bore, not half as smart or cunning as he thought he was. This is glaringly obvious in the footage of his first trial, when he insisted on being part of his own legal team.
His behaviour in court was bizarre. At one point, he lengthily cross-examined a cop who had discovered one of his victims and insisted he describe, over and over again in minute detail, the gory scene, as though reliving it for his own enjoyment. His massive egotism sabotaged his own defence.
What sabotages the series, which is merely competent and tells us nothing we couldn’t find out by reading Wikipedia, is its desire to find out what drove him to kill, to find a meaning for his madness.
The result is that his victims (Bundy confessed to committing 30 homicides between 1974 and 1978, but the actual number is most likely much, much higher) and their horrific suffering are frequently marginalised.
Bundy was a kidnapper, a conman, a murderer, a rapist and a necrophile. He decapitated some of his victims and kept their heads in his apartment as mementoes. With others, he sexually defiled their corpses until they began to putrify.
The best summing up comes from the prosecutor in Bundy’s second trial, for the murder of Kimberly Leach, which secured a second death sentence: “He was just a piece of garbage in the shape of a human being.”
This is probably all the analysis of Ted Bundy anyone is ever going to need.