In the commentary track for “Wonderland,” director James Cox talks about “fighting tooth and nail over whether this was a love story or a crime story.” Right there you have the main problem with this film: Is it a police procedural that tries to get to the heart of the horrific quadruple homicides that happened on Los Angeles’s Wonderland Ave. in 1981? Or is it the story of an infamous guy’s involvement in the murders and how they sent his life spiraling even further out of control?
The infamous guy in question is John Holmes (Val Kilmer), better known to many porn fans as Johnny Wadd, who just happened to bring his oversized appendage on the scene just as that industry was exploding during the 1970s. By 1981, though, he hadn’t made a film in two years and was strung out on drugs. He hung out with both the group of lowlifes on Wonderland Ave.—David Lind (Dylan McDermott, who really loses himself in the role), Ron Launius (Josh Lucas), Billy Deverell (Tim Blake Nelson), Joy Miller (Janeane Garofalo; blink and you’ll miss her), Barbara Richardson (Natasha Gregson Wagner), and Susan Launius (Christina Applegate)—and a rich nightclub owner named Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian). Both groups wanted him around for his notoriety: the Wonderland crowd viewed him as a party novelty while Nash admired his legacy as “The King of Porn.”
When the Wonderland group robbed Nash, though, he sent a group of thugs to bash their heads in with steel pipes. Only one person, Susan Launius, survived, but she was in critical condition and was later unable to identify the killers (Lind happened to be away that evening). Holmes, of course, was implicated in the killings because he was used by both sides to carry out their plans, and the movie shows us three points of view: Holmes’ story, Lind’s version, and what Cox thinks really happened, which includes Holmes participating more than he admitted. While this “Rashomon” style of storytelling works for some movies, such as “The Usual Suspects,” it really isn’t effective here. Holmes’ tale is more compelling, but we’re left with few insights into this conflicted man, and we’re cheated out of seeing the resolution of his relationship with girlfriend, Dawn Schiller (Kate Bosworth); instead, we read about it in one of those “What happened to the characters” texts at the end of the film.
It also doesn’t help that Kilmer was woefully miscast as Holmes. While Kilmer is a solid actor who completely sold me on his portrayal of Jim Morrison in Oliver Stone’s “The Doors,” I never believed he was Holmes. He didn’t look or sound right, a fact made even clearer when you watch the accompanying documentary “Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes,” which must have been a late addition to this release because it’s not listed on the back of the DVD case. “Wadd,” which originally came out in 1998, gives us a much better picture of who this man was, and it even includes some tidbits from his life that could have been used in the film. For example, while Holmes sells out both Nash and his Wonderland “friends,” we learn in “Wadd” that he also sold out others in the porn business by becoming a police informant during the days when making X-rated films was illegal in Los Angeles. So was this a guy acting out of desperation in the days before the murders, or was this a guy who knew exactly what he was doing and had zero qualms about it? The film touches on Holmes’ violent, amoral side, which is detailed in “Wadd,” but it never really gets into what made the guy tick.
Aside from “Wadd,” which is almost two hours long and comprises the entire second disc of this set, we also get some extras on the first disc, including the aforementioned commentary, 7 deleted scenes, a photo gallery, the LAPD’s crime scene video, a brief promo piece from Court TV, and an even briefer series of interviews with Kilmer, Bogosian, Lucas, and Nelson. The commentary, which features Cox with his co-screenwriter, Captain Mauzner, relates some interesting tidbits about the making of the film and the real lives of the people depicted in it, but often falls back on the usual “This scene was cool; we shot it at dawn” and other useless comments. And don’t expect to find out which parts of the film they contributed and which parts came from the other two credited writers, as the others are never mentioned.
The 6-minute Court TV promo piece is essentially an EPK dressed up as a news report. It doesn’t relate anything you can’t learn from the film or by watching “Wadd.” Same goes for the actor interviews, which are each about two minutes long and feature them talking a bit about their characters and why they chose the roles. The deleted scenes don’t add much either; they merely exist as a curiosity, as it’s obvious to see why they were cut. The LAPD crime scene video sounds gruesome, but the low grade of the video quality spares us the real gory details; be prepared to see dead bodies and copious amounts of blood, though (more gore is shown in the movie, actually). Finally, the photo gallery gives us 20 or so shots from the making of the film, without captions or other explanatory text.
It’s interesting to note that the only extra feature that really delivers the goods on Holmes—“Wadd”—wasn’t produced for this release. While what happened on Wonderland Ave. in 1981 was horrible, it also signaled the beginning of the end for Holmes, both in his life and in the relationships with the two women most important to him: Schiller and his estranged wife, Sharon (played very ably by Lisa Kudrow, who’s usually excellent no matter what role she takes). Seven years after the murders, he was dead too. I came away from “Wonderland” feeling like Cox and company had missed the more compelling story.