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Why are all our Disney heartthrobs playing serial killers?

Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, Ross Lynch as Jeffrey Dahmer: actors with syrupy sweet careers are taking on the dark and sinister

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but a lot of your Disney #ManCrushMondays have decided to play serial killers. I have, and it’s piqued my interest.

High School Musical star Zac Efron is playing Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, an upcoming chronicle of Bundy’s crimes told through the eyes of his girlfriend. Recently, My Friend Dahmer arrived in UK cinemas, with Austin & Ally cutie Ross Lynch taking the lead as young Jeffrey Dahmer. And while his brother Cole is melting hearts in Riverdale, Suite Life of Zack & Cody star Dylan Sprouse is marking his return to acting as the murderous lead in Dismissed.

Generally, there certainly seems to be a movement towards true crime subject matter both on TV and film right now. Broadchurch, True Detective and American Crime Story: The People Vs OJ Simpson have been earning critical acclaim their cast and creatives, while Netflix has garnered much attention for their documentary series Making a Murderer, which is expected to return for its second season. Netflix have also recently begun streaming Mindhunter, David Fincher’s latest fictional endeavour that focuses on how the FBI developed their profiling on serial killers through interviews with the criminals themselves.

“For Efron, there seems to be no better way to shake off that career mediocrate than throwing himself into a role that is totally different to anything he has done before”

But why are a stream of ex-Disney heartthrobs adding serial killer to their roll call? For Zac Efron it seems pretty obvious. The actor has proven himself to be a talented and versatile performer in the past, with roles in Hairspray, Me and Orson Welles and Neighbours, but his last five movies have been critically-panned. Baywatch, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and Dirty Grandpa were probably the worst offenders, and he’s likely thinking he needs to get out of this bro-comedy rut.

It’s reminiscent of that point in Matthew McConaughey’s career where he was stuck doing formulaic chick flicks. Then came the McConnaissance, which began with the actor saying “no” to his normal movie fodder after appearing in the terrible Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past, then waiting three years before making his comeback with a string of movies beginning with 2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer.

For Efron, there seems to be no better way to shake off that career mediocrate than throwing himself into a role that is totally different to anything he has done before. Ted Bundy is one America’s most infamous serial killers, who used his notorious charm to lure multiple women and young girls to their deaths during the 1970s. The Zac Efron fandom will certainly get a shock to the system when the movie, once shortlisted on the Blacklist, hits cinemas and it will hopefully shock some life back into the actor’s meandering career.

My Friend Dahmer enjoyed its US theatrical release this month after its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, but the Ross Lynch of the Disney Channel was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we found the actor losing himself in the role of the troubled and socially-awkward teen Jeffrey as he navigates high school. Dahmer went on to rape, murder and eat pieces from 17 male victim before his capture, but the movie didn’t need these gory details to make it a tense and disturbing watch, and that’s a testament to Lynch’s performance. It’s obvious that the actor wanted to shake off that Disney gloss the minute his proper film career kicked off, and Marc Meyer was more than happy to oblige. “I thought it was exciting that he was just ending his run as the lead of a Disney show and was the lead of their Teen Beach Movie franchise,” the writer-director said of Lynch going to the dark side.

Dylan Sprouse last appeared on TV screens in 2011, with his twin Cole, in the much-loved Disney Channel series The Suite Life Of Zack & Cody. His brother has revamped his clean-cut image into a rather more emo one thanks to his Holden Caulfield-esque portrayal of Jughead in the Netflix and The CW show Riverdale. Dylan is going a psychotic step further by playing a high school honours student who will do anything to get an A, even if it means taking out his academic rivals.

Judging from the trailer, Dismissed isn’t going to achieve the same sort of sinister depth as My Friend Dahmer, but it does reintroduce Sprouse to the screen without the wholesome Disney image that could restrict the kind of work he is offered. “I’m interested in roles that are human, that have some sort of empathic quality,” he told the New York Daily News. “Scripts that make characters a two-sentence description, I’m not interested in.”

But it’s not just these ex-Disney stars who benefit from being cast against type; the filmmakers get to utilise their fanbase and social media presence to promote their movies too. Zac has 15.1 million Twitter followers. 3.7 million people follow Dylan on Instagram while 4.3 million follow Ross. That’s a serious number of people who could buy tickets to see their faves on the big screen, even if they’re going to be watching their crush killing girls rather than kissing them.

Ryan Gosling has already proven that the killer career move is a good one for a former Disney star. After appearing in The Mickey Mouse Club, Gosling shed his innocent veneer to play various murderers and criminals in Murder by Number, Drive and All Good Things. Now he’s able to breeze easily between comedic (Crazy, Stupid, Love), romantic (La La Land) dramatic (Blade Runner 2049) and disturbing (Only God Forgives) roles without being typecast.

Here’s hoping the careers of these former Disney babes can do the same.

My Friend Dahmer will be released in the UK in spring 2018