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Wonderland

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Before viewing last year’s little sleaze-fest Wonderland, be prepared to wallow in a Hollywood-created world of drug addiction, bad hair, crappy clothes and blood-splattered walls. All of this lovely excess is spiced with frenetic quick-cut editing – you know, in order to create the wonderful high of freebasing for three straight days. I liked Wonderland, but then again I have always had a morbid fascination with crime. This crime is as morbid as one could possibly be.

There is more to like in Wonderland than dislike, but the already-mentioned machine-gun editing hides several good performances. And the story plays out in a he-said-she-said, Rashomon-like fashion confusing more than aiding. Three versions of this story are shown in Wonderland, so the “interested” viewer can decide for themselves. Flash over substance always pisses me off, and director James Cox has gone to great lengths to make a stylish film about the most unsettling cretins in Hollywood history.

Wonderland, sadly enough, is a true story that happened in 1981. Four people are found brutally murdered in a house on Wonderland Avenue, their skulls crushed by lead pipes and a baseball bat or two. Johnny “Wadd” Holmes, one of the most famous porn stars in history thanks to a 13-inch doppelwanker, is a prime suspect. The Wonderland house was a drug den, and Johnny “Wadd”, coke addict Superdick who hadn’t made a film in two years, hung around (pun intended) often.

Investigators haul Holmes in and get a convoluted story detailing robbery, double cross and dope. It appears the Wonderland victims had robbed the home of Eddie Nash, Los Angeles nightclub owner and 1980’s drug dealer king. Nash suspected Holmes was involved, and forced the weaselly drug addict porn star to lead his own goons over to the Wonderland house to exact bloody revenge.

I could write an epic post if I wished to recount all the mistakes sophomore director James Cox made in Wonderland. Frankly, he was out of his league with this subject matter (he had one previous film, the thoroughly dull Highway in 2002). Cox’s obsession with the Wonderland murders is reportedly why the film was financed in the first place. I imagine the casting of Val Kilmer helped.

Everyone in this film is sleazy, and it’s surprising such a strong cast to include Kilmer, Dylan McDermott, Lisa Kudrow, Josh Lucas, Kate Bosworth, Jeneane Garofalo, Carrie Fisher and Christina Applegate would take on such shady roles. The performances are uniformly good, though a lot of fine actors disappear in the shadows of communion dope smoke and coke snort. I suppose Applegate can be excused for taking part. She jumped on board because she grew up near the house on Wonderland Avenue. Applegate could actually recall the bloody mattresses sitting in the front yard awaiting trash pick-up. Now I ask, have you ever heard a better piece of trivia?

Some of the best scenes in Wonderland are when Kilmer-cum-“Wadd” is figuratively flogging himself for the unparalleled loser he’s become. He repeats over and over, “Please forgive me. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” But you will have to look quick to see this great scene because Fox, in obsessive MTV-retard fashion, cuts away as quickly as possible. Oh, he cuts back a couple of times like a chocolate-binging boy with scissors. We eventually see the entire scene, only in snip-snip pieces, inter cut with “Wadd’s” girlfriend sleeping with another man. He used to pimp her out you see.

Why is the Wonderland crime still remembered? Pretty simple really. You have a multiple homicide involving former porn stars, piles of drugs, sweaty sex and good rock n’ roll. Investigators on the scene claimed the murders were more brutal than anything seen since Manson’s Tate-LaBianca Grand-Guignol. And there are other bizarre connections between the two infamous blood epics, with the most glaring being the abuse of drugs and the fall of dreams in the city of Angels. James Ellroy, where for art thou?!

I’m a crime buff, and was familiar with this sordid tale long before Wonderland bombed at the box office. In secret, I have perused great tomes on the Manson clan, Ted Bundy, Bonnie and Clyde, Bugsy Siegel and other demented sociopaths who would just as soon cut your throat as have an espresso. In almost all of these cases, I have avoided the crime scene pics, which I suppose is hypocritical. But if you pick up the Wonderland DVD, you have a lovely little extra which is the actual LAPD crime scene video taken at the soaked scene. In all its crimson, hand-held gore glory, you can see the infamous Wonderland pad, complete with close-ups of the dead and mutilated kids. I turned it off quickly, and am frankly stunned such an insensitive extra would be included. Dope dealers and criminals granted, but these kids deserve a bit more respect than to have their indecent murders serve as fucking gravy on a DVD.

There’s not much character development in Wonderland, and motivation is about as thin as a sheet of recycled toilet paper. Brief stardom and falls from porn grace have been brilliantly documented in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights. In fact, Dirk Diggler was based on Johnny “Wadd” Holmes. The robbery of Eddie Nash was covered in the unforgettable scene where Alfred Molina dances around to Night Ranger in sweaty speedos. Yucky Molina (who plays a character named Rahad Jackson) soon fires his shotgun at the aspiring criminals. Diggler does a Prefontaine and returns to the pad of director pal Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). The film ends happily ever after, but not before the unforgettable money shot of Diggler’s diggler.

I suppose Wonderland is the seedy next-day truth to Boogie Nights, as Diggler-er-Holmes is forced to go to Wonderland Avenue and pound out a bloody revenge against his friends for the robbery. To Wonderland’s credit, we never see Holmes’ savage sausage. He is forced to pull it out at one point – away from camera view – for eager party guests.

The Wonderland case is technically unsolved, though authorities pretty much know the story. Holmes was acquitted, and eventually died of AIDS in 1988. Eddie Nash served 37 months in jail for a drug-possession charge, but was never tagged for the murders. Today, Nash lives in LA freedom an elderly man, undoubtedly pleased at having been portrayed in filmland by the likes of Eric Bogosian and Alfred Molina, two of the finest character actors of their era. As to whether Nash would awkwardly dance around in speedo and housecoat while snorting lines of white powder, I cannot say. The similarity of characterizations in Wonderland and Boogie Nights leads one to think it must be partially true.

As mentioned earlier, there’s much in common between the 1981 massacre and the Manson slaughters during the summer of ’69. To date, both crimes have had awkward films made about them (Helter Skelter was filmed twice for television in 1975 and 2004). I suspect it’s not easy to wallow in this kind of snuff, when the only emotional truth is mindless brutality. Sleaze is sleaze, no matter the light one chooses to shed upon it.

Wonderland accurately portrays a horrible crime and the days leading up to its resolution. The drug den will be familiar to anyone who stumbled upon such scenes during the coke-happy 1980s. Like watching a crime scene video, you’ll find yourself wanting to look away. But like the party-goers staring wide-eyed at Johnny “Wadd’s” infamous member, you won’t.

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About Chris Wilson

  • http://www.maybeiamwrong.blogspot.com Lono

    You made an interesting link, which should be stronger stated: Wonderland is part two to Boogie Nights. If you ever want to know what happens to Dirk’s character… the Holmes story is perfect. I thought it was a really interesting DVD (I rarely kick down the cash to see a movie. Unless it is something like Lord of the Rings… every movie gets the Netflix treatment here). I highly recommend this DVD as a piece of escapist entertainment for people with low legal standards for what constitutes fun!

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks Lono,

    I suppose one could consider Wonderland a continuation of the epic Boogie Nights saga, though both films are so different in tone and style that it would be an uneasy transition. Boogie Nights delved far deeper into the characters. Wonderland was so obsessed with the crime, the characters fell by the wayside. If we are to depend on Boogie Nights for the character motivation of Wonderland, then this film is a complete disaster.

    Both films have equally talented casts, so the fault must fall on the director and writers of Wonderland. Wonderland perhaps gets a nod for showing a mostly unflinching look at the lives of these Hollywood losers……I will give it that. It’s not an easy film to watch.

    Wonderland is a historically accurate film, but character depth is shallow and Cox pulled a few too many stylistic moves with a story undeserving of them.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Chris, great review as ever! And some really interesting observations, not least the one mentioned by Lono about how this could be an unnoficial sequel to Boogie Nights. I have yet to see this here flick, but hopefully will do shortly, and indeed, my intentions to seek it out have been given a shot in the arse by your article.
    Interesting stuff on the crime, too.
    Good work, man.

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks Duke,

    Depends on which side of the bed I wake up on as to my overall opinion of Wonderland. It’s not anywhere near the level of Boogie Nights, which I consider one of the great films of the decade……an absolute classic.

    Wonderland should probably be quickly forgotten. But it’s still fascinating to watch.