Boogey Nights: Two new movies about serial killer Ted Bundy, one thoughtful and the other superficial

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GETTING TO KNOW YOU Elijah Wood (foreground) and Luke Kirby in ‘No Man of God.’

Two new Ted Bundy films are now amidst us, the docudrama No Man of God and the dramatized thriller Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman. Notorious “sadistic sociopath” Bundy, who was executed in 1989, is one of film’s most popular serial killers, with some 50 documentary and TV series about him to date, according to IMDb.com. He runs a distant second to Charles Manson, who rates 94 citations—the fictional Hannibal Lecter, by comparison, checks in with 80 references. What exactly about a fiendish mass murderer draws a crowd? Neither of the above titles provides the definitive answer to that, of course, but one of them at least asks the right questions.

Director Amber Sealey’s No Man of God covers Bundy’s gruesome story from the point of view of FBI Special Agent Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood), a professional psychological profiler, and his relationship with the Death Row inmate. Hagmaier is shown interviewing the confessed slayer of 36—who is suspected of having dispatched at least 100 victims, all women and all sexually assaulted—in a Florida state prison before Bundy, played with a dash of restraint by Luke Kirby, was executed there.

Kirby portrays Bundy as an analytical academic with a magisterial air of malevolence. Low-angle photography and eerie lighting contribute to the effect. Aside from the film’s silly “inside the mind of a sexual psychopath” montage, this Bundy is as cool, calm and calculating as the aforementioned Dr. Lecter. “I’m tired of people saying that I’m crazy,” he declares. “Normal people kill people.” Bundy’s delusional rationale stimulates the FBI inquisitor in his ongoing research of rapists, child molesters and sex murderers, but also prompts other reactions from Hagmaier—including wearing a religious medal and assigning value judgments to Bundy’s fondness for pornography—“It’s a combination of pleasure and control.”

Actor-turned-director Sealey, working from a screenplay by Kit Lesser, takes a non-sensational approach to her subject: no bloody crime-scene flashbacks or shock cuts. Hagmaier’s stated aim in conversing with Bundy is to get him to name some of his victims, to provide closure to their families. But probing the mind of a Bundy has its own challenges and rewards as well—“There is nothing that this guy has thought that you haven’t thought of at one time or another,” warns Hagmaier’s boss. In one scene, Bundy even volunteers his own profiles of past serial killers.

The filmmakers’ comparatively subtle dramatization of such a bizarre true-crime story works in No Man of God’s favor. Wood and Kirby contribute carefully measured performances, and the screenplay sticks to its studious criminology as we delve into the inner workings of a monstrous psychopath. We can’t say the same for Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman.

The TV-style, screaming-headline account of Bundy’s five-year, cross-country murder spree—written and directed by long-time horror producer Daniel Farrand—belongs to the “changed and fictionalized” school of true-crime click-baits. Meaning, we get fairly graphic scenes of the kidnappings and rapes, and the requisite minimum of psychologizing as Bundy—Chad Michael Murray, who looks enough like Charles Manson to also fit that role—works his way from Utah and Washington to Florida. There, he sets up shop next to a university sorority, trailed all the way by FBI agents Kathleen McChesney (Holland Roden) and Robert Ressler (Jake Hays), characterizations from real life.

The movie’s most insightful moment is the chilling revelation that Bundy considers the killings to be his “life’s work”—he’s proud of it. Almost every other element of the movie is derived from somewhere else. American Boogeyman is no threat to Thomas Harris or Stephen King. The young, long-haired female victims are usually alone at night in darkened rooms or lonely spots outdoors, and the monster suddenly materializes out of nowhere, like Friday the 13th’s Jason. Bundy also goes into a BDSM sex fantasy, with mannequins, that out-sleazes anything in No Man of God. Leave this one alone.

“No Man of God” is in theaters and on demand, beginning Aug. 27.

“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” is in theaters as of Aug. 16; VOD and DVD on Sept. 3.