Sweet Nothings

Netflix’s new true crime documentary of serial killer Ted Bundy electrifies, but leaves us hanging.

In the opening salvo of Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes a journalist lowers his voice and, deliberately, confesses that, “he looked at me and grabbed my tape recorder, twisted in his chair, cradled it, and off he went.” It’s the kind of declaration that makes lovers of true crime yelp, because Ted’s always held his cards close and we desperately want to know what he did to those girls.

The Ted Bundy Tapes comes off the back of Netflix’s great documentary run (The Keepers, Making A Murderer etc) and extraordinary serial killer series Mindhunter. It plays like a thriller, presenting interviews, archival footage and audio made on death row by one of America’s most mystifying villains. The audio snippets here enlarge Bundy’s status, the muffled sounds working like mythic echoes; each recording a cluster of empty promises. You know you’re being manipulated, but Bundy always affected susceptibilities.

At 57, Joe Berlinger has more than 30 years of documentary making behind him, and he has been outstanding, but something comes unstuck in Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. For the first time, Berlinger stops short of going inside the mind and emotions of his subject. And he stays outside. He’s as proficient as Errol Morris in the technique, so much so he’s forgotten how to use them expressively.

There are plenty montage set-pieces in The Bundy Tapes, a lot of overlays, narration and it flows, but everything that happens seems to go right through your head. For anyone who’s loved researching up on serial killers over the last three decades, the footage and stills aren’t anything new and although it all of it has clarity and a foreboding inevitability, you’ll make the mistake of thinking that it’s going to lay out the crimes and lives of the victims with any empathic faithfulness.
The flurry of images that precede each episode along with the kicker jump out tabloid- style in black and white, colour and sepia… all show a sullen, stiff-necked menace, black- eyed and devoid of feeling. We’re teased, but the teasing becomes claustrophobic, and uber mechanical. It keeps cranking on, episode after episode, and it doesn’t let up, but there’s no pay off. Instead Bundy’s represented as an extremely crafty salesman who looks almost obscenely audacious, his victims portrayed as unimportant – as if half of the documentary’s humanity has been omitted.

Is The Ted Bundy Tapes worth watching? Of course, if you’re new to Ted Bundy, new to his MO, hunting grounds, narcissism – but for all his talking, Bundy’s very being still encapsulates wordless rejection.

By Damon Boyd ( Guest Sailor)

And in Captain news, looks like The Joe Berlinger Zac Efron Ted Bundy movie has been bought by Netflix, so that’s one to put your bookmark on.