Our review of Wonderland (Blu-Ray), published October 4th, 2010, is also available.
John C. Holmes was the first true porn star. The man who became a worldwide sensation because of his 14-inch appendage, Holmes is credited with making porn mainstream and available to everyone. He wasn't much to look at, but he had that one magic thing that made his name known to almost everyone. You could rattle off a list of dozens of today's porn stars and have no idea who they are, but if you say John Holmes, people know who you're talking about.
But there's a dark side to Holmes, much darker than his work in porn, and very few people remember that aspect of his life. At the end of his career, he fell in with the wrong crowd and got entwined in one of the most grisly events in L.A. history, the Wonderland murders. This movie is based on that event.
Facts of the Case
John Holmes (Val Kilmer, Batman Forever, Tombstone, The Doors) is a washed up porn star. With his low self esteem firmly in hand, Holmes wanders around L.A. looking for his next fix. He's a big crackhead. At first it was just marijuana, but now he takes enough coke, valium, and scotch daily to put down a horse. Since leaving the industry two years ago, he's insulted every drug dealer in L.A. except for one, Ronnie Launius (Josh Lucas, Secondhand Lions, Hulk, A Beautiful Mind). Ronnie likes the novelty of having the porn star around, and he also knows how desperate Holmes is. While this desperation gives Ronnie a lot of control over Holmes, it doesn't completely offset the unpredictable and irresponsible nature of the man.
Ronnie has just acquired four antique guns, but he's been unable to fence them—they're simply too hot, and that really pisses Ronnie off. But Holmes thinks he knows a man who would be interested in buying them. Only Holmes knows this guy, and Ronnie is willing to take a chance because he needs a fix. Right now, L.A. is in the midst of a drug shortage, and he'll do just about anything to get that fix. He gives Holmes the guns, beginning a chain of events that will lead to his death in two days.
Holmes comes back eight hours later high as a kite, without any drugs or money, telling a tall tale about how his friend couldn't help out. Ronnie is livid. Now, not only does he want some drugs, but he wants his guns back mixed with a toss of payback. Ronnie and his gang cook up an idea to use Holmes to get inside his friend's house. From what Holmes has told them, they believe they should easily net half a million dollars from the heist. Desperate for their fix, the plan is put into action.
They hit Holmes' friend's house and walk away with 1.2 million dollars in drugs, cash, and jewelry. It's a fantastic hit. But during the robbery, they realize whose house they're in: Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian, Igby Goes Down, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory), one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the city. But within moments of walking out the door, they forget who they've robbed and get high.
The exact details of what transpired next are fuzzy and muddled, due to conflicting testimonies at their trials. However, what isn't in dispute is the fact that Nash used Holmes to find out who robbed his place. With some involvement from Holmes, Nash's men broke into Ronnie's house, located on Wonderland drive, and smashed in the heads of everyone who was there. Four people were brutally murdered in that house, but one did survive.
What role did John Holmes play in one of the most savage murders in L.A.? Did he just tell Nash where his friends lived? Did he get them into the house through the security gate? Or did he even swing a pipe down on Ronnie's head?
It's a movie about a porn star without the porn. It's a novel concept, but, unfortunately, Wonderland is missing a few ingredients and it comes out a bit flat and lifeless. I really thought that I had heard some great things about this film, but I was in error. Coming out on DVD just four months after its theatrical release is a clear indicator that something went wrong. But I'm just not certain what it is. I'm not clear on why I wasn't more drawn into this macabre tale, for these types of stories usually pique my interest. It's the first two-thirds of the film that failed to keep my attention, which is decidedly odd. Why?
The way the story unfolds is a touch unconventional. The director jumps back and forth across time, from June 29, 1981, to a few days after the murder on July 1. You're not quite aware of this happening until the final leg of the film, which is when I found myself finally interested in what was going on. The story is told from two points of view: the first is from a member of Ronnie's gang who was involved in the robbery but had left town before the murder; the second is the events as told by Holmes. The two stories often contradict each other, placing blame on different people and altering events. It's the recitation of the first point of view that's a bit dull. The person, David Lind (Dylan McDermott, The Practice, In the Line of Fire, Texas Rangers) tells his story in a police interrogation room. As such, a lot rides on the performance of McDermott, which didn't quite work for me. I guess that's where the problem arises, because I just couldn't quite let go of his Bobby Donnell persona for this new, hardcore biker dude. But when I got to that initially unexpected second point of view, I was far more interested to see how the stories diverged, wanting to see if I could piece the truth together on my own.
I was surprised by the number of recognizable names in this film: Val Kilmer, Dylan McDermott, Lisa Kudrow, Christina Applegate, Carrie Fisher, Eric Bogosian, Janeane Garofalo, and Kate Bosworth. That's a lot of talent packed into one little film. But, surprisingly, many of these people took very small parts, and it wasn't until my second viewing that I realized they were involved in the film. Aside from McDermott, I thought everyone did an excellent job in realizing these actual people (from what I could tell), especially Kilmer. Kilmer may be a pain to work with, but he is a gifted actor who really does justice to (most of) his roles.
The most interesting juxtaposition of this whole DVD experience is that while the film itself is somewhat boring, uninspired, and simply dull, I found the bonus features to be remarkably fascinating. The additional features are markedly better than the movie, thereby making this whole experience far from a total loss. As in all things, not all of the extra items are good, but the overall experience is quite satisfying. Here's what you'll find on the two-disc set:
Audio Commentary with director James Cox and co-writer Captain Mauzner:
First question: Captain of what? I had thought he was retired LAPD who had
worked on the Wonderland murder case. Guess not. I guess that's his real name.
Moving on. This is an average commentary track. It's routine with the occasional
interesting nugget shared along the way. What I didn't like was the too oft
self-congratulatory talk, and the fact that it is obvious where they had learned
everything about John Holmes. (I'll get back to this.)
Are you still wondering where the good bonus features are? Don't fret, for here they come:
• LAPD Crime Scene Video (24 minutes): This is the first bonus item I watched, and it hooked me into watching all the other special features. This is the actual crime scene video from 1981. It's a grisly yet fascinating look at the real crime scene, detailing the initial forensic investigation. You see it all, from pools of congealed blood, to blood splatter, to the dead bodies. Without question, this is the most morbid bonus item I have ever scene, but I was captivated.
The above items are all included on disc one. This last feature is self-contained on the second disc of the set:
• "Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes" (1 hour, 45 minutes): Included in its entirety is the 1998 documentary about John Holmes, more affectionately known as Johnny Wadd to porn aficionados. This is an amazing look at the troubled life of the man with the thing that catapulted him to fame. It exhaustively details everything from his birth to his death, leaving no nasty rock unturned. You learn about his troubled boyhood in Ohio, his early days in porn, his fame as a porn king, the Wonderland murders, his death from AIDS in 1988, and just about everything in between. You really get to understand Holmes, and it makes you understand Wonderland better, because you now have so much more information to place the events into historical context; Wonderland becomes a better film because of this documentary. Having watched this feature before the audio commentary, I surmised that Cox and Mauzner learned most of their Holmes history from this documentary as well. I enjoyed this documentary far more than Wonderland.
Lastly, there's little to be said about the transfers on the Wonderland disc. The anamorphic video sports no flaws nor is it one of the best out there. It has accurate colors (though it skews a bit orange for my tastes, but I think that's Cox's visual trick), decent blacks, and adequate sharpness and details. You won't have any problems with the video. But, you will have some problems with the audio transfer. You can choose between Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 mixes. I only watched the 5.1 and had difficulty with the dialogue at times. The mix seems improperly balanced, as background sounds and music often overpowered the dialogue. Further, there were times when the dialogue was quite muffled and unintelligible. But, on the bright side, when the music kicks in, it really does kick in.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've been rather negative in my appraisal of Wonderland. It's a shame that the filmmakers were unable to craft a film to better capture the essence of this tawdry episode. During the final third of the movie where we get Holmes' version of events, things begin to pick up. Unfortunately, that energy and intrigue is lost for most of the rest of the film. Even with its lineup of stars and decent acting, the film doesn't adequately capture your imagination. It's lacking that magical element. It's not a terrible movie, but it's not one that will be remembered for any time.
This DVD set is backwards: I liked the special features more than the film itself. That, in my mind, suggests that I won't be recommending this disc to you. Further, the graphic nature of the film (the crime scenes) and the graphic nature of the bonus features (the crime scene video and the porn in the "Wadd" documentary) combined with the overall suggestion of porn and excessive drug use throughout the film excludes a wide segment of the audience. Not too many people will be interested in this movie because of these things. As a result, I'm not giving it my recommendation. The movie has a few moments of intrigue, but on the whole it's flaccid. If you have any interest in the Laurel Canyon murders, then there are other avenues to explore. If you have an interest in Mr. Holmes himself, then you can watch the far superior (and adult) "Wadd" documentary. I don't think you'd be too dismayed if you rented this set from your local store, because there is some interesting stuff to be found in the set.
Wonderland is hereby found guilty of taking a grisly, complicated tale and making it boring. They are barred from producing any additional movies about real-life murders.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director James Cox and Captain Mauzner
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