Living and Dying in L.A.
Wonderland is a great film for many reasons. It’s a sensational crime thriller based on the 1981 Wonderland murders. The drug dealers and gunmen of L.A.’s underworld come alive with deadly menace. The film can be viewed as a cautionary tale, a modern fable based on actual events. At its core, the film is a fascinating character study, as described in the opening credits:
John Holmes was the most popular porn star of his time. He starred in over a thousand films. According to legend, he slept with 14,000 women. This is the story of what happened after the legend was over.
We come to understand Holmes by the two people who knew him best: his girlfriend Dawn Schilling and his wife Sharon Holmes.
On Hollywood Boulevard, the beautiful 19-year-old Dawn (Kate Bosworth) is homeless and heartbroken after being dumped by John Holmes (Val Kilmer). As she weeps on the curb, a kind Samaritan (Carrie Fisher) takes her home. Dawn calls Holmes and leaves a message with her new address.
As the Samaritan preaches to Dawn, we hear the screech of tires on the street below. Dawn rushes to the window, then to the door, which flies open. Holmes is breathless and smiling as he takes Dawn into the bathroom for a snort of coke and some drug-fueled sex on the bathroom sink. The devil wins.
Kilmer is a rare talent, a mercurial actor who executes this opening scene with rakish charm.The film is set in 1981, and Holmes is already past his prime, now a washed up cokehead. This is a role that few leading men would play.
Wonderland’s plot is driven by Holmes’ insatiable drug habit. He’s also a man with a fatal sense of entitlement. After bedding thousands of women, Holmes is a narcissist who’s used to getting what he wants.
Holmes ingratiates himself with two rival L.A. drug dealers: the dangerous Ronnie Launius and the powerful Eddie Nash. Holmes becomes a pathetic side-show at Hollywood drug parties, as in this scene at the Wonderland hangout of the gun-toting Launius:
Young woman: Are you John Holmes?
Launius: C’mon John, don’t lie to her! Do you want to see it, baby?
Young woman: Yes.
Launius: Show her your cock, Holmes…or I’ll shoot it off.
We soon realize that Holmes loves cocaine more than anything else. In a wrenching scene, Holmes delivers his teenage girlfriend to Nash as a favor. “It means nothing, babe,” Holmes tells Dawn.“I’ve been with thousands of women. Just remember that your name is Gabrielle.”
Launius eventually works a trade with Nash, a guns-for-drugs swap using Holmes as the go-between. This sets off a fatal sequence of events: Holmes keeps the drugs and claims that Nash stole the guns. Launius and his crew rob Nash in a brutal home invasion. Nash retaliates with a bloody massacre at Wonderland.
The murders shock L.A. back to the Helter Skelter days of 1969. The subsequent investigation leads to the one man who betrayed both dealers: John Holmes.
Lisa Kudrow plays Holmes’ wife Sharon, another woman he abandoned. When in trouble, Holmes always returns to her. In the following flashback, we sense that Sharon is the only anchor in his chaotic life.
Sharon: What did I tell you about the porn industry?
Holmes: That anyone who sells their body is… a whore.
Kudrow plays Sharon with world-weary grace. She’s seen too much and has cast her lot with the wrong guy, but somehow manages to keep her dignity. In a ghastly scene after the Wonderland hit, a blood-soaked Holmes returns to Sharon’s door:
Holmes: I’ve had an accident.
Sharon: Oh my God, you need to go to the hospital.
She strips off his clothes and takes him to the bathtub. As she washes off the gore, the full horror of the truth finally hits.
Sharon: Where’s your wound? This isn’t your blood… whose blood is this?
The scene is loaded with implications: Holmes lies to Sharon. She trusts him and tries to care for him. After she discovers the truth, she scolds him but doesn’t turn him in. We realize that this has been the pattern of their relationship for many years. She’s the nurturing mother and he’s the spoiled child. Only now he’s implicated in a murder and the party’s over.
Director James Cox does a lot of things well, but what’s most impressive is his depiction of ‘80s Los Angeles. He captures a volatile dystopia of decadence and vice. Cox splices scenes with city maps and screaming newspaper headlines of the Wonderland murders. You get the feeling that L.A. is about to explode—the cataclysmic 1992 riot and the Simpson murders are right around the corner.
The extras on the Wonderland Blu-ray release include a treasure trove of information: a grisly crime scene video shot by the LAPD; an episode of Court TV that covers the Wonderland case; there’s also a John Holmes documentary, deleted scenes, and director’s commentary.