The true cost of the serial killer’s crime are reduced to an afterthought in this slick yet superficial documentary series
The most shocking moment of Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes arrives in episode two, and comes from one of his few survivors. In a contemporary interview, Carol Daronch is discussing the moment in 1974 when Bundy tried to kidnap her from a shopping centre in Colorado. He tricks her into believing he’s a police officer, and that her car has been broken into, so she needs to come down to the station to lodge a complaint.
She’s apprehensive, but gets in the car with him. It’s then she describes his haphazard attempt to kidnap her with handcuffs, and how she stared into Ted’s “flat, lifeless eyes” as he attempted to abduct her. It is a chilling moment, but insights into the unbridled rage exhibited during his rampage are few and far between in a retelling of the Bundy legend that sometimes fails to communicate the sheer horror he inflicted.
A series aimed at sating the ever-growing obsession for true crime, Conversations With a Killer retreads the well-told story of one of the most notorious and infamous US serial killers, albeit with a unique USP – Netflix’s four-part doc is the first to utilise over 100 hours of previously-unheard interview tapes with Bundy, undertaken by investigative journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth and used as the basis of their 2000 book of the same name.
The series documents Bundy’s failed attempts at practising law, through the first disappearances of young women in Seattle in the early ’70s, a trail of horror across multiple states, his capture, trial and 1989 execution. Using contemporary interviews with law enforcement officers, journalists who covered it and archival footage at the time, the narrative of this monster is pieced together – albeit, in places, clumsily .
We’re thrown headfirst into the myth and narrative that Bundy wanted to portray. He was a young, quiet, charming and handsome bachelor who, like most serial killers, would hide in plain sight. He’d use this to approach, befriend and then slaughter victims. At one point, a archival news interview says he “doesn’t look like the type”. The persona of Bundy is referred to frequently, but seldom is it challenged by himself or his victim.
The unrivalled access to Bundy is occasionally enlightening. Initially, he claims that his childhood was perfectly normal, and that people trying to analyse his early years to find the traces of the man he would become would be wasting their time. Bundy protested his innocence until the day before his execution in 1989, but when the interviewers get him talking in the third person and “hypothesising” what a “person like this” could do to their victims, he starts to reveal his MO; he “imagines” what the psyche of a killer like that would be like, and the mask begins to slip.
But when there’s a hint of a revelation, it’s either rushed or unchallenged. Conversations With A Killer doesn’t really deliver on the conversations promised. It’s a rambling monologue, in which individual and unrelated quotes from Bundy are stitched together in an attempt to make him a coherent narrator in the piece: the killer telling the story of the killer, his version of history, his myth.
In the final episode, Bundy casually drops in that “someone” like that could have been influenced to commit these atrocities by pornography. It’s a cowardly final attempt to shift the blame, but there’s no pushback to either rationalise this last attempt, or challenge it, or debunk his claim. It’s not an interrogation, sure, but conversations involve back-and-forth and questioning.
Perhaps director Joe Berlinger, who also directed the Zac Effron-fronted biopic about the same killer, felt it best to allow Bundy’s own erratic, confounding behaviour do his work for him. The show’s final episode, which focuses on the trial and conviction, sees Bundy beginning to unravel. He fires his lawyers frequently, taunts the press and appears to relish the re-telling of some of his most brutal murders (those of Lisa Levy and Margaret Bowman at Florida State University). The trial also shows the testimony by Nita Neary, an occupant of the same sorority house where he killed two and attacked a further three, who points him out as being seen in the house on that night.
This testimony is only, really, the second time the documentary dwells on the young women he brutally slaughtered. There are few interviews with the victims’ families, and only though archival news footage are the women and their personalities able to be understood and remembered. The show provides what Bundy wanted: they’re virtually anonymous. Their stories are disappointingly absent.
This is a show about Ted Bundy and a deep dive into the man who would kill at least 30 women, but we learn little that hasn’t been told before. When Darornch remembered his “flat, lifeless” eyes, we see not the projection that Bundy wanted, but the real monster within. Conversations With A Killer, then, falls into the trap of too frequently allowing the myth to grow, and for the real human cost to be an afterthought.
Release date: January 24, 2018