It’s December 31st, and I’m sure you know what that means, dear reader… that’s right, it’s Val Kilmer’s birthday! Today we celebrate by examining the John Holmes crime pic Wonderland (2003), starring Kilmer as the fallen star.
I went into the proceedings expecting a more sweeping Boogie Nights-esque tale of an ill-fated career in the porn industry during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Boogie Nights, after all, was inspired by Holmes’s life. Instead, Wonderland is more focused on the days, weeks and months immediately on either side of the gruesome 8763 Wonderland Avenue murders in Laurel Canyon on July 1st, 1981. It is more of a microcosmic crime study than a sweeping cautionary tale. The “Four on the Floor Murders” quickly joined the ranks of the Manson family killings and the Black Dahlia murder as some of the most infamous crimes in 20th century Hollywood lore. Los Angeles has always had a dark underbelly, a seedy side of dreams chased and corrupted.
Wonderland, co-written and directed by James Cox, adeptly plunges us into that world with intense performances from a stacked ensemble (well, aside from one pretty dated celebrity cameo), a time-jumping narrative that keeps us enraptured, understated period costuming and makeup that never takes us out of the story, ad visceral handheld camera work and realistic low lighting (courtesy of DP Michael Grady). The excellent soundtrack (which includes Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” being used during a drug-abetted lovemaking session and Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” blasting during a rager) doesn’t hurt, either. Though the film lacks the sheer tragicomic storytelling inventiveness that made Boogie Nights a classic, Wonderland carves out its own niche as an effective, enlightening procedural thriller.
Kilmer portrays flaky, scary porn actor John Holmes, the man with a 14″ member who, the film declares in some pre-credits titles, starred in over 1,000 adult films and slept with 14,000 women. Lisa Kudrow plays his estranged wife Sharon. Kate Bosworth is his on-again/off-again girlfriend Dawn Schiller (21 at the time of the film, groomed by Holmes from the time she was 15), whom he at one point prostitutes for a drug fix.
One of the most interesting emotional elements of the story is the relationship between Sharon Holmes, John’s childhood sweetheart, and Dawn. Sharon, wise to Holmes’s game, consistently advocates for Dawn to leave John, and Dawn in turn leans on Sharon for moral support.
As the narrative unfolds, we are treated to a bit of a Rashomon scenario. First, we see John through Dawn’s eyes, as they fight and make up, tearing through various seedy LA motels. John comes and goes at all hours of day and night to keep their cocaine in steady supply. One morning, a barrage of LAPD officers burst inside and arrest John, bringing Dawn along for questioning. Several druggie characters involved in the robbery of Starwood club owner and dealer Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian) tell divergent stories about their involvement in the Wonderland slayings and besmirch each other as they do so.
What remains consistent in all stories is that the “Wonderland Gang,” drug-running associates of John’s, stole Nash’s supply of drugs, jewelry, guns, and cash to the tune of $1.2 million (they then dealt the drugs to add even more green to their coffers) in 1981 dollars, and then, in an apparent retaliatory move, several of those thieves and their significant others were then brutally beaten at the Wonderland house.
In Sacramento biker David Lind (Dylan McDermott)’s recollection of events to investigating detectives Sam Nico (Ted Levine) and Luis Cruz (Franky G), the initial theft of Eddie Nash is John’s idea. In John’s iteration, told to detective Billy Ward (M.C. Gainey), he has been violently coerced into abetting thieves Lind, Ron Launius (Josh Lucas) and Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson).
There is another key discrepancy in these two men’s stories. Lind claims that Holmes, a “basehead” (so called because of his tendency to freebase cocaine), turned duplicitous traitor to his crew out of spite, believing he deserved more of a cut than an even split for setting up the deal and supplying a blueprint to the house. John, meanwhile, says that Eddie beat him up and then forced John, at gunpoint, to give him access to the thieves in exchanges for his life and the lives of his loved ones. In a 2001 E True Hollywood Story episode covering the killings (and in his memoir My Life With Liberace), Liberace’s former lover Scott Thorson echoes the Holmes version of events.
The police offer John a plea deal if he will cooperate in their investigation of Eddie Nash, wherein, if he were to implicate Nash, he would be granted immunity and he, Sharon and Dawn would be placed into witness protection. A wizened Sharon isn’t having any of it, and refuses, despite his pathetic pleas. The investigating detectives have very different ideas about the extent of Holmes’s involvement. Sam Nico thinks Holmes, by benefitting of being a coke fiend, is deeply unreliable and was probably involved in the homicides. He ultimately opts to cut John loose.
We finally flash back to the night of the Wonderland killings when John, covered in blood, shows up at Sharon’s Glendale cottage, claiming he “had an accident.” Sharon figures out that… he is covered in someone else’s blood! It’s a great, creepy moment. He confesses to being present at the scene, and alternately discusses the way Ron’s head “opened up like a grapefruit” when it was bashed in with a lead pipe and then claims to not have been present during the murders. Sharon was never asked to testify against John for some reason, but she finally indicated after he passed that he visited her the morning after the Wonderland slayings.
The lone survivor of the attacks, Ron’s wife Susan (a barely-recognizable Christina Applegate) becomes a key witness, though she has been badly wounded. She is unable to supply much in the way of identifying information.
We discover before the credits roll that, after the events of the movie, John Holmes and Dawn fled to Florida and assumed faux identities. Six months into this, Dawn reported John to authorities and he was made to stand trial. David Lind served as a lead witness for both Holmes and Eddie Nash, both of whom were eventually charged with murder, and both of whom were eventually acquitted. Holmes’s life still managed to end tragically, as he died of AIDS seven years after the events of this movie, aged 44. Eddie Nash, meanwhile, was indicted in 2000 on federal racketeering charges, including conspiracy to commit the Wonderland murders. For the morbidly fascinated, Tracy Pattin and Larry Brand’s informative podcast The Wonderland Murders is well worth a listen.
Birthday boy Kilmer, one of the best actors of his generation, submits a tour de force performance here as Holmes, a pathetic, desperate, paranoid, dishonest man who exploits his friends when it serves his self-interests and whose chemical dependency makes him prone to fits of bubbling range that are utterly terrifying to the women in his life.
Wonderland arrived to theaters at an interesting juncture in Kilmer’s terrific filmography. After a charmed collegiate training period at Julliard, Southern California native Kilmer had enjoyed a fantastic decade-long cinematic run that boasted chameleonic shifts between charismatic singer/spy Nick Rivers in the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker parody Top Secret! (1984), bad-ass fighter pilot Iceman in Top Gun (1986), doomed rock god Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991), an understated detective out of touch with his heritage in Thunderheart (1992), and, of course, sickly sharpshooter Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993).
After the smash success of Batman Forever (1995), Kilmer’s paychecks increased, but, aside from playing a gambling-addicted bank robber in Heat (1995) and a psychotic lieutenant to Marlon Brando’s title character in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), he found himself in a bit of a creative rut, playing stolid leading-man characters in safe, big-budget Hollywood flicks. To be fair, Kilmer was consistently very good in these roles, though they are certainly less complex than his earlier work. By the turn of the century, though, Kilmer had moved back into more dimensional characterizations, opting for darker, more nuanced performances in challenging prestige indies like Wonderland, The Salton Sea (2002) and Spartan (2004). The tormented John Holmes is a worthy addition to Kilmer’s fantastic menagerie of characters.