[box cover]

Wonderland (2003)

Lions Gate Home Video

Starring Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Lisa Kudrow
Dylan McDermott, Tim Blake Nelson, and Josh Lucas

Written by James Cox and Captain Mauzner
Directed by James Cox


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Review by Damon Houx                    


"As the joke goes, if John (Holmes) ever got fully erect he'd lose consciousness from lack of blood to the brain, because his dick was that big. And it's true that his cock was never hard. It was like doing it with a big soft kind of loofah."

— Annette Haven in Wadd: The Life and Time of John C. Holmes


Boogie Nights is now considered a seminal work. Of this writing, it is #18 on this site's top 25 DVDs of all time, it launched director Paul Thomas Anderson into the auteur orbit, and made people take Mark Wahlberg seriously. It received Academy attention (though no awards), and made many lists of the best of its year and of its decade by telling the story of a character modeled on John Holmes and the porn business as they segued from their cinematic days in the 1970s to the video business of the '80s.

It is also totally full of shit.

P.T. Anderson claimed the film was inspired by his days as a peeper. In his youth he would watch people making porn near his house, and it seems this was the extent of his research — which may make the film more or less impressive. One can find real info on the '70s porn biz in Joe Bob Briggs' chapter on the making of Deep Throat (collected in his essay book Profoundly Disturbing), while the documentary that accompanies the release of Wonderland (2003) — Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes — is a truer portrait of John Holmes (who became the first star of porn because of his 13-inch member) and bears little resemblance to the world of Nights. After watching Wadd, it's hard to feel sympathetic for Holmes as he either allowed four people to be beaten to death with steel poles, or actively participated in the Wonderland murders (evidence points to his involvement).

Yet, though Nights is total fiction, it has stigmatized any film that follows — films based in reality (including Wonderland and Emilo Estevez's Rated X) are typed either as follow-ups to Boogie Nights or considered automatically less than. Which they are. Wonderland appears to be a direct commentary on Anderson's film, concerning John Holmes' involvement in the 1981 Wonderland murders (which was used as the basis for a set-piece in Boogie Nights). Wonderland seems meant to provide the "true story," in a Rashomon narrative that presents two-and-a-half sides of the murders, but it ends up being too myopic and never more than an interesting TV-movie deconstruction of a famous crime.

*          *          *

The film starts with John Holmes' underage girlfriend Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth), who is often left sitting in their car while John (Val Kilmer) gets cocaine for them to freebase. Their relationship is on-again off-again, and the movie begins with her hiding out with a nice Christian woman (Carrie Fisher). But Dawn breaks down and calls Holmes to take her away, which he's more than willing to do since he's just scored a lot of cocaine. The story then segues into the police investigation of the Wonderland murders, headed by Sam Nico (Ted Levine), as they investigate their only witness, David Lind (Dylan McDermott) — whose girlfriend was murdered in the incident.

Lind's story sets up the framework for the crime: Holmes was semi-friends with the habituates of the Wonderland Drive household (but more friendly with their drugs), including owner Billy Deverall (Tim Blake Nelson) and Ron Lanius (Josh Lucas), who just scored some antique guns he wants Holmes to sell to crime-boss Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian). Holmes takes the guns to Nash, but he can't get the money Lanius wants, so Holmes sells the boys on hitting Nash's home, which he says should be at least a million-dollar score. Lanius, Deverall, and Lind are successful at the robbery, but Nash's retribution was the Wonderland murders, in which the inhabitants of Deverall's home were beaten with steel pipes, leaving four dead and one in a coma. Lind figures Holmes sold the crew out to Nash while he was out of town.

The police bring in Holmes and Schiller, and Holmes says he'll make a deal if he, Dawn, and his wife Sharon Holmes (Lisa Kudrow) can be taken into protective custody. Sharon rejected John's life but never divorced him, and she rejects the idea of going away. John relays his side of the story to his cop friend Bill Ward (M.C. Gainey), and his version features the exact same results, but paints the three criminals as the masterminds who sold Holmes out to Nash during the robbery. To stay alive, Holmes says he let Nash's goons into the Wonderland home, but claims that's all he did. The film then investigates sole survivor Susan Lanius (Christina Applegate), who whispers about "shadows." In the end, Holmes runs off with Schiller, and the "truth" is revealed in John's dreams and a flashback to the morning after the murders.

It's obvious that writer/director James Cox is familiar with both the case history and Holmes' real life as little details are revealed throughout Wonderland (such as Dawn's predilection for urinating in soda cans while waiting for Holmes to finish his drug dealings), but Cox never creates a narrative force to the film, and it becomes more about plot that the characters, to the picture's determent. Val Kilmer's John Holmes is the central character, but one never gets enough of him, and the only mention of his porn infamy is relegated to one scene. Kilmer says in the supplements that he plays him as a hustler who has a different voice for each person he deals with, which he does, but it only seems apparent after hearing Kilmer say it. The Wonderland case and its underpinnings are fascinating, but like a lot of films where the makers are too close to the material, it never opens itself up enough for people who haven't studied it. Ultimately, there is a Boogie Nights-sized epic picture in Wonderland, but the end results are only as involving as one's personal curiosity about Wonderland.

(Author's Note: There's an ironic/iconic moment in the middle of the film when Kilmer's Holmes meets future real-life amateur porn star Paris Hilton on Eddie Nash's boat.)

*          *          *

With the inclusion of Wadd, Wonderland makes a better DVD set than a film. Wonderland is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. The main extra on Disc One is a commentary by James Cox and co-writer Captain Mauzner. Cox dominates the track, though both seem knowledgeable about their subject matter.

The rest of the extras on Disc One are the 1981 LAPD Crime Scene Video (23:39); it's real footage of the Wonderland crime scene, and probably not for those with a low tolerance for real gore. The most visible thing is the dried blood on the walls, and there's never a graphic shot of the badly beaten bodies. There are four Interviews with Val Kilmer (:55), Josh Lucas (1:33), Tim Blake Nelson (:51), and Eric Bogosian (1:20), with no interview substantial enough to create interest. There are also seven Deleted Scenes (10:02), which are mostly snips. The best features Janeane Garofolo — woefully underused in the film — riffing on "Fantasy Island" while Holmes freebases. Also included is Court TV — Hollywood at Large (5:44), which promotes Wonderland and interviews Dawn Schiller, and a brief photo gallery. On the main menu, there's a Lions Gate logo, where the user can access the film's Trailer and soundtrack promo, along with a bonus trailer for Prey for Rock and Roll.

But the best reason to pick up the disc is the Limited Edition inclusion of Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes (1.45:16). Made in 1998 by Cass Paley, it is the perfect antidote Paul Thomas Anderson's rose-colored world. A talking-head documentary, the film offers a biography of Holmes that is shocking and engrossing, and obviously meant to directly counter Anderson's film. Want proof? PTA is interviewed for the film, and he says that Holmes wasn't a bad actor and had natural charm, which is intercut with three clips of Holmes that show him bereft of any talent, and to top it off Wadd cuts to Holmes' director Bob Chinn (the person Burt Reynolds' character was modeled on), who says that Holmes was a "not a good actor."

There are great moments of insight in the film into Holmes, and it's more than just a discussion about his penis, though there is plenty of talk about that. While many sing his praises, it quickly becomes obvious that the people who liked him most were the one's who knew him least. The meat of Wadd is the interviews with Sharon Holmes and Dawn Schiller (both shot in silhouette); they both love John but were well acquainted with his dark side. Dawn especially — the two met when she was 15, and John would sometimes pimp her for drugs (an element included in Wonderland). The film also helps flesh out many details in Wonderland — M.C. Gainey's character was modeled on interviewee Det. Tom Blake, for whom John snitched out other porn people to stay out of trouble.

If Wadd has any drawbacks, it's that the footage of Holmes comes mostly from his oeuvre; though some shots feature nudity (for the curious, one can see his infamy, but not in action) and none feature penetration, the bulk consists of Holmes practicing his "O face." After a while it becomes repellent to watch Holmes overact yet another orgasm. Still, Wadd reveals a more complicated and interesting man than Boogie Nights or Wonderland are able to surmise.

— Damon Houx



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