TED BUNDY: FALLING FOR A KILLER Does Right By Victims
When a new true crime documentary surfaces, the high horse din slowly rises among the cinema scuttlebutt, "Why do we need another serial killer film? We already know who they are and what they've done. Stop glorifying these monsters!" Putting aside the fact that the term "glorifying" is misapplied and thrown about far too liberally, every once in a while a documentary shows up that exposes these mewlings for how myopic they truly are. Ted Bundy: Falling For a Killer is the latest such offering from Amazon Prime. Over five episodes, each under an hour, filmmaker Trish Wood re-calibrates the conversation surrounding one of North America's most notorious serial killers to center on the women involved and affected.
Throughout the 1970s Ted Bundy assaulted, kidnapped, raped, and killed at least thirty women. Many a film has attempted to profile and understand his pathos, including last year's Netflix show Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. The most controversial look at Bundy in recent memory is a feature dramatization of his trial, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (with Zac Efron playing the infamous murderer). But Bundy's voice is largely absent from this series, relegated to some courtroom footage, a few scrapbook photos, and excerpts of letters. The reason? Because this isn't really about him. Director Wood chooses instead to converge on the fairer sex as the focal point, from the victims to his loved ones to the FBI agent trailing him to the reporter disclosing each disappearance on local television. With good reason; Killer On The Road author Ginger Strand nails the consistent flaw in so many true crime documentaries of years past: "It's a discounting of the stories of the women in favor of the central hero being the most important character in the narrative, and that is that failure to look deeper and think harder about violence against women in our culture."
First, a look at that culture. Amid a flurry of stock footage and witness recollections, Wood initially gives the women a platform to reminisce about the exciting potential of the early '70s: campus protests regarding the treatment of rape cases, The Mary Tyler Moore Show's handling of unmarried career women, the Battle of the Sexes between tennis pros Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Just as these cultural warheads started to detonate, the murders began. The easy pitfall would be to assume that Wood is trying to neatly rest Ted Bundy's hatred of women within this movement, but it would be wrong. There's no psychoanalysis, no "which ex-girlfriend made the good boy go bad?" couch therapy set against a photo negative of grinnin' Ted holding a fish by a lake. Women are due North in every aspect of the narrative, and this portion of it serves to point out that they were all on the cusp of great change and more fulfilling lives, just when it all came crashing down for so many who crossed paths with the so-called Campus Killer.
Beginning with Karen Sparks, Bundy's first known victim (and one of the very few survivors), and ending with Kimberly Leach who was twelve when he murdered her, victims aren't relegated to crime scene pictures and an end credits montage. They are tangible people, brought to life by the women who knew them well and miss them dearly. Family members and former roommates share anecdotes of good times and fond memories with their departed. They also share a common repetition of the system that they were up against when dealing with the fallout after each disappearance or attack. Joanne Testa, housemate of Linda Healy (one of Bundy's first murder victims), remembers having to insist that it was out of character for Linda to be missing. Police would continue to suggest that she had run off with a boyfriend or had an abortion. It's the start of an aggravating thread that runs throughout the run-time of Falling For a Killer, of women not being taken seriously when they say that there's something very wrong. Her sister Laura Healy elaborates: "I guess I feel like speaking about my sister now because women's lives are still secondary to men, and somewhat expendable. It's the only real reason to poke at it again, is to try to somehow rise above it."
Elizabeth Kendall is the centerpiece of the show, due to her longtime relationship with Ted Bundy (before his trial). The knee-jerk reaction to learning that Ted Bundy had a girlfriend while he committed most of his crimes is, "Bundy had a girlfriend? How messed up must she be to stay that whole time? How could she not know?" But Elizabeth recounts the first time he stayed the night, in which they didn't get physically intimate at all. The following morning, she woke up to find him cooking breakfast with her daughter Molly. Molly Kendall permeates the documentary with her perspective as well, dwelling on the time that Bundy removed her training wheels and taught her how to ride her bike, and later when he, the man she considered a father, played an inappropriate game with her. When the disappearances began gaining steam, Elizabeth was in suspicious denial for much of it, enjoying the happy times, being ignored by police when she called them with worry about her boyfriend, and drinking the rest of the days away. Wood paints in the necessary shades of gray for those who loved a man who turned out to be monstrous.
The spotlight on women successfully avoids turning the film into a meeting of the man-hating club: men do occasionally pepper the narrative. Bundy's kid brother, a psych instructor who taught Bundy at U of W, the DA who indicted him, a lawyer who appealed on his behalf (who is also the only POC in the entire documentary), and a few more provide observations and understanding of the mayhem. The most unintentionally insightful voice comes from Kelly Snyder, a male witness who recounts the disappearance of Janice Ott from a Lake Sammamish in 1974. He recalls seeing a man in a sling come up to her and ask her to come help him with something. He recalls seeing her politely decline as so many women learn to do when approached by a man. After the man in the sling persists and harasses her for a few minutes, she eventually sighs and gets up to leave with the man. Janice Ott is never seen alive again. Snyder's choice of words is inadvertently a chilling confirmation of how women are so often blamed for their own fate: "She's no longer with us because of her being a nice person." But that's an attitude that the film sets out to interrogate, and it does so with determination. This is another reason why the cultural context of both era and social conditioning is so impactful: it's not an attempt to blame the killer's rage on any one thing. It's not attempting to draw a connection to Ted, but to the women he preyed upon, and the women who were tracking him, and the factors that encourage women to nurture and be polite - so polite, that they'll follow a man with his arm in a sling to his car, late at night.
Particularly gut-wrenching are the near-misses. Phyllis Armstrong recalls a brush with Bundy in which he tried to coax her to help him with some "car trouble" one evening. She got spooked, fled, and thought nothing of it until her housemate Georgann Hawkins disappeared a few days later. Another woman recalls feeling instantly wary of Bundy when he approached her at a school play, and she declined and even alerted her male principal right away. Hours later, he followed another young girl from the same venue and she was abducted and killed. Both women have spent their lives wrapped up in survivor's guilt, blaming themselves and wondering if a life could have been saved by changing their own actions, if only slightly.
It's easy to see true crime films and climb up on that high horse, unfurl the scroll, and proclaim that these killers are simply evil and separate, separate, separate yourself until everything's okay again. Trish Wood refuses to let that be the end of it; her series unearths the social and cultural underpinnings that answer the evergreen question: "How could this happen?" If you're wondering why we need another Bundy doc, allow Elizabeth Kendall to sum it up. "This story has been told many times by men. I want to tell this story because there's a lesson to be learned. Now's the time to talk about this." Falling For A Killer is one to watch.
Ted Bundy: Falling For A Killer is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.