Reviewed by: Keith Hennessey Brown

An otherwise ordinary guy from Anonymous, Ohio, John Holmes had one big asset: his cock. It was to be his fortune, leading him to become the #1 male porn star of the Seventies and his downfall, as, somewhere along the line, the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle led to cocaine. First the man took the drugs, then the drugs took the man...

This is the Holmes (Val Kilmer) we meet at the start of writer/director James Cox's dramatisation of the titular murders, so brutal that they were compared with the Manson Family slayings some 12 years before and managed to shock an otherwise blasé Los Angeles populace.

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A washed up has-been who - it is claimed - hasn't made a film for close on two years, Holmes is living - if it can be called such - with his teenage girlfriend Dawn, their lives utterly dominated by the need to score the next hit.

More a petty thief and hustler than a serious criminal, he helps some of his junkie acquaintances, led by Ron Lanius (Josh Lucas), rip off local nightclub owner-cum-gangster Eddie Nash (Eric Bogosian).

One way or another, Nash finds out who set him up and forces Holmes to take his men to Lanius's apartment at 8763 Wonderland Avenue. There they beat the inhabitants with lead pipes, leaving four dead and one in a critical condition.

One of the gang, David Lind (Dylan McDermott) was out of town at home. Fearing for his life and traumatised by the death of his girlfriend, he goes to the police and relates his story...

The first problem with Wonderland is that its subject matter is already all but Exhausted - to use the title of Johnny Wadd director Bob Chinn's porno-cum-biopic - by previous entries, including Paul Thomas Anderson's whitewashed fictionalisation Boogie Nights - Dirk Diggler as an obvious stand-in for Holmes - Cass Paley and Allan Smithee's Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes and even the flashy, trashy John Holmes and the Wonderland Murders: The E! True Hollywood Story.

Cox's solution is to take the old Rashomon approach, presenting a series of contradictory perspectives on what actually went down and inviting the viewer to make up his, or her, own mind.

It works, but only raises a second problem, that no one here, with the exception of Holmes's estranged wife Sharon (Lisa Kudrow), is exactly what could be called a sympathetic - as distinct from pathetic - character, to whom we can relate (a touch of Henry Hill style editorialising to identify our PoV might have helped), or particularly care for.

Stylistically the film is a bit of a mess, frontloading with all sorts of showy technique but then settling down into a more talky, actor-dominated approach. Exactly why isn't clear: Was the meretricious approach felt to be appropriate to the milieux? Was it intended to make the viewer aware of the subjectivity of what they are seeing? Or did Cox just shoot his Wadd too early on and run out of ideas?

The performances are likewise awkward. Kilmer and Kudrow bring their characters to life, but only through invoking mannerisms that remind you of similar performances in The Doors and The Opposite Of Sex respectively, while further down the cast list Janeane Garofalo and Christina Applegate are wasted in anonymous, pointless, virtually unrecognisable cameo roles.

Worst of all, however, is Cox's inability to bring the proceedings to a close. After presenting all the evidence, the film abruptly has Holmes and Dawn drive off into the sunset before a series of written titles tell us the all-too sordid and prosaic reality of what happened next.

Yet, for all these failings, Wonderland is strangely compelling, in the manner of an accident, maybe, but compelling nonetheless.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2004
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The true story of the 1981 Wonderland murders, exploring the role of porn star John Holmes.
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David Haviland *1/2

Director: James Cox

Writer: James Cox, Captain Mauzner, Todd Samovitz, D Loriston Scott

Starring: Val Kilmer, Lisa Kudrow, Kate Bosworth, Dylan McDermott, Josh Lucas, Franky G, Tim Blake Nelson, Carrie Fisher, Eric Bogosian, Ted Levine

Year: 2003

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US/Canada


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