USA’s “The Stranger Beside Me” is a routine adaptation of author Ann Rule’s grisly account of her friendship with Ted Bundy. A true and very personal story — as colleagues at a crisis center, Rule knew Bundy before discovering his double life as a serial killer — project, especially when held up to other interpretations, especially Matthew Bright’s haunting low-budget theatrical, feels like a typical killer-of-the-week pic.
With respect to the victims and their families, the events themselves don’t lose any significance or relevance, but it does say something about the state of the world when the story of a man who killed 36 women seems dated.
Writers Matthew McDuffie and Matthew Tabak have somehow left out all of the detailed forensic psychology that makes Rules’ books so engrossing. Instead, Barbara Hershey as Rule, using what appears to be only one expression, follows Billy Campbell’s Bundy around like a morose groupie, crossing off possible motives like a grocery checklist (history of violence, cruelty to animals, etc.). While the notion that even a seasoned criminologist and onetime cop couldn’t spot the killer is a fascinating angle, McDuffie and Tabak totally drop the ball on the very crux of the story that could have set the picture apart.
As Bundy, Campbell gives a nuanced performance; his depiction of Bundy’s compulsions is captivating, and actor oozes charisma and charm. He also shows a distinctively sinister side as a man who commits heinous crimes with the intensity and compulsion of a junkie in an almost trancelike state.
Director Paul Shapiro keeps a tight rein on a story with countless possible subplots, including confounding courtroom antics. He also makes several nods to absurdities surrounding the case, including the time-honored ritual of inappropriate jokes as well as the culture of celebrity even as it pertains to serial killers.
Shapiro and production designer Michael Joy have perfectly re-created the late 1970s and 1980s.