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On the afternoon of July 1, 1981, Los Angeles police responded to a distress call at 8763 Wonderland Avenue in Laurel Canyon and discovered a grisly quadruple homicide. Drug dealers Ron Launius, Billy Deverell, Barbara Richardson and the homeowner Joy Miller were found brutally murdered, bludgeoned to death with lead or steel pipes, and Launius's wife, Susan, was left in critical condition. The police investigation that followed -- led by detectives Sam Nico, Louis Cruz and Mike Peters -- would unearth a seedy world of drugs and violence, ultimately revealing a motley crew from L. A.'s underbelly including ex-con David Lind, nightclub impresario Eddie Nash, and porn legend John Holmes as well as Holmes's estranged wife Sharon and his teenage lover Dawn Schiller.
For more about Wonderland and the Wonderland Blu-ray release, see Wonderland Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on August 31, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Val Kilmer, Kate Bosworth, Carrie Fisher, Dylan McDermott, Kim Marriner, Josh Lucas
Director: James Cox
» See full cast & crew
Wonderland Blu-ray Review
Val Kilmer portrays porn icon John Holmes in this film based on a real life murder case from 1981.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, August 31, 2010
Los Angeles, that "wonderland" of shattered dreams and desperate characters, has had more than its share of high profile grisly murders. While horrifying visions of the Black Dahlia and Tate-LaBianca murders probably spring most instantly to mind, there was another, more recent, L.A. case which made international headlines, though which for some reason has never resonated with the public at large the way those first two cases have. Part of this lack of resonance might be traced to the fact that none of the victims—four in this instance—were particularly sympathetic. Mix in the fact that organized crime and the porn industry were at least tangentially involved, and you have neither the faux glamour and enigmas of the Black Dahlia case, nor the real glamour, replete with pregnant (almost full term in fact) movie star, mixed with the gruesome insanity of drug addled hippie maniacs, of the Manson murders. Instead Wonderland recreates the hideous lives and deaths of a ragtag bunch of drug dealers, thieves and general scoundrels in the Los Angeles of 1981. This "Wonderland Gang" (their soubriquet derived from their Wonderland Avenue home in Laurel Canyon) decided, more or less on a whim, to rob the home of infamous night club owner cum gangster Eddie Nash, not exactly the most prudent decision they could have made, and one which played out over the next couple of days after the robbery with devastating consequences. Along for the ride, and maybe more than that (depending on whom you believe) was iconic porn "king" John Holmes (played by Val Kilmer in the film), who was soon on the lam before finally being arrested and charged with murder.
It's perhaps ironic that the lack of resonance with which the Wonderland Murders have been plagued (for wont of a better word) since they were committed also plagued the film Wonderland. Despite an impressive array of performances from everyone including Kilmer as Holmes, Lisa Kudrow as Holmes' estranged wife Sharon, Kate Bosworth as Holmes' teenage girlfriend Dawn Schiller, Dylan McDermott, virtually unrecognizable as David Lind, one of the conspirators in the murders and the first one to go to the police, Eric Bogosian as Eddie Nash, and Josh Lucas as Ron Launius, the gang's putative leader, a smug mixture of bravado and idiocy, the film received mostly negative reviews upon its release and quickly disappeared. Looking at the film now with a perhaps more objective (if substantially more aged and jaded) eye, Wonderland often plays like a B-movie version of Natural Born Killers, a frenetic, overly stylized and bizarre mind trip through the whirling lives of habitual drug users whose murderous rages ultimately spill out, igniting a firestorm.
Wonderland wants to be intellectual, even when its characters and plot resolutely refuse to allow it to be, punctuating its account of the murders with a Rashomon-lite compilation of competing versions of what actually happened. Part of the mystery of the iconic Kurosawa film, however, is that that film had completely sympathetic victims, and Kurosawa's mastery was such that the viewer was instantly sucked into the drama of the event, even while never being entirely sure of which account was "true." Here we are presented with an assortment of almost entirely unseemly people, with only relative shades of gray of "innocence" in terms of the victims, and the whole thing has the slightly putrid smell of food left too long on the refrigerator shelf. It really doesn't matter if Holmes resorted to taking part in the murders, one of the ostensible chief plot points of Wonderland, because the fact is four unlikable people, at least three of whom were involved in a serious crime, got some serious comeuppance, albeit comeuppance laced with a staggering amount of brutality and violence. (A fifth person, Ron Launius' wife Susan, survived the assault, but according to the film, her whereabouts are unknown.)
Also, unlike Natural Born Killers, Wonderland never relents in its grim and serious tone, While Killers' humor was as hyperbolic as everything else in the Oliver Stone film, there were at least glimmers of satire (much more than glimmers if you're of a certain type prone to the charms of black humor) which helped to relieve the stress of the mayhem. Here, we're presented with a stylized and overly facile account that plays like a Dragnet episode filtered through a haze of cocaine and marijuana.
This is not to say that Wonderland is not a visceral experience, because it most certainly is, largely due to the powerful performance of Kilmer. Holmes is revealed to be a self-loathing Sad Sack who wants nothing more, as pathetic as it sounds, than to be loved. Stuck in a "career" based upon his freakish endowment, he attempts to escape his disgrace by staying stoned, but always bubbling just beneath the surface is a simmering rage, which finally does erupt the night of the killings. Kilmer is absolutely mesmerizing, horrifyingly so, in this segment, allowing us to peer into the tortured soul of a man so self deluded and incapable of introspective analysis that his demons fairly explode from within. The entire supporting cast, which aside from the actors listed above also includes future notables Janeane Garofalo, Natasha Gregson Wagner (Natalie Wood's daughter), Christina Applegate and, in a cameo, the one and only Paris Hilton, also do exemplary work here, if often with characters who are by their very nature unsympathetic.
Director James Cox brings a fair degree of visual panache to the proceedings, with lots of post-processed shots, split screens, and scenes either emerging from desaturated "newspaper photos," or dissolving into them. It helps to give the film a rather strange artifice built more than a bit ironically around a story, and visual style, literally "ripped from the headlines." It's worth noting that Holmes' girlfriend Schiller was one of the co-producers of the film (she appears in some of the bonuses included on the Blu-ray). For true crime junkies, it's also of note that the two detectives who worked the case (who are here portrayed by Ted Levine and Franky G), Tom Lange and Bob Souza, went on a few years later to pop culture "stardom" in the O.J. Simpson murder case.
One of the questions audiences asked themselves after watching Oliver Stone's depiction of insane murders in Natural Born Killers was, "Why?" Stone of course insisted he was crafting a satire, one which skewered the media fed fascination with true crime. Perhaps it's notable then that the Wonderland Murders never really became the media sensation that many other grisly crimes have become, both before and after this particular event. Cox doesn't seem to provide any answers himself in his approach to Wonderland, and we're left asking that same question. Without a clear response, what we experience is a slightly dirty feeling without any hint of redemption anywhere. That may indeed be true to life, and redolent of this crime in particular, but it makes for a peculiarly unsatisfying film experience.
Wonderland Blu-ray, Video Quality
Wonderland sports one of the most intentionally stylized images in recent memory, so viewers who like to complain about abundant grain, desaturated images, and blown out contrast will have a field day with this Blu-ray's AVC encoded 1080p image (in 1.78:1). The fact remains, though, that Cox chose these techniques, for better or worse. Wonderland frequently skews toward an overly bright, yellow-tinged image, whether that be in the sunswept outdoor shots of Los Angeles, or even in the interiors of the Wonderland home. With a purposefully verité look a lot of the time, contrast is quite low, with overwhelming grain in the darker shots, even in those not overly post-processed to beef up the grain. While detail is sometimes lost in the shuffle due to these techniques, when things settle down to relative normalcy, as in the police interview segments with McDermott and Kilmer, we're granted an exceptionally sharp image.
Wonderland Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Wonderland's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a sometimes overly busy affair, especially in the claustrophobic confines of the Wonderland party house, where ambient crowd noises spill in over the listener from every direction. In the violent burglary segment, directionality is exceptional, with the sounds of everything from broken glass to the sharp report of an unexpectedly fired gun filling the surrounds impeccably well. Dialogue, while mostly front heavy, is clear and precise, and the source music cues are also well mixed into the overall soundfield. Fidelity is superb throughout the film, with impressive dynamic range, especially when sudden bursts of violence make the LFE kick in. Listen to the disturbing foley effects during the climactic murder scene for some appallingly visceral examples of what good sound effects mixing can do to amp up the emotional turmoil of a scene.
Wonderland Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Wonderland comes stuffed to its gills with some impressive supplements, including:
Wonderland Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Wonderland suffers from the same problems which afflicted its source material: namely, there's no one here to root for, with unlikable victims and an all around slimy feeling ambience. Because Cox chooses such an overtly stylized approach to his subject, it puts some distance between the audience and subjects, making for an oddly dissociative experience. That said, Kilmer and the rest of the cast deliver top notch performances, and the supplements here, while sometimes ghastly, are excellent in their own right. If you have an interest in this case, for whatever reason, this Blu-ray is recommended. Otherwise, an evening's rental will probably suffice.
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