Wonderland opens with a credit telling us that John Holmes was the first real porn star. That statement is wildly untrue – the first porn stars were women, like Marilyn Chambers – yet its casual hyperbole befits the overendowed aura of its subject. ”Wonderland,” a bad trip of sinister sleaze, is driven by the fever of obsession: The writer-director, James Cox, is possessed by the myth of Holmes, the tall, skinny, impassive superstud who, for a decade or so, seemed to appear in every porn film made. Cox presumes that audiences will share his obsession, to the point that he can set an entire film about Holmes in 1981, two years after the triple-X legend had fallen out of the industry and become a jittery ghost of himself, a coked-up, gun-toting, sociopathic hustler with his claws dug into the fringes of the Los Angeles underworld.
Val Kilmer, scruffy and bearded, with a smile that blinks on and off like a faulty neon sign, plays Holmes as a kind of rootless party guest, perpetually feeding his freebase addiction, which has more or less replaced sex. When he’s asked to drop his pants so that a couple of girls can check out his famous appendage, Kilmer nails the creepy macho passivity of Holmes, a man defined, and upstaged, by his own manhood. Mostly, though, Kilmer’s performance is all frayed nerves and hopped-up drug energy.
Holmes’ downward spiral resembled that of countless other showbiz has-beens, except that when he hit bottom it was with a gruesome splash of violence: On July 1, 1981, four people were slaughtered in a drug dealer’s apartment in Laurel Canyon. Holmes came under investigation; he knew the victims, had hung out and done drugs with them. He was connected to the hideous crime, but how, exactly? Was he there? Did he actually participate in the homicide?
Lisa Kudrow creates a vivid impression as Holmes’ tough, sad estranged wife, and so does Eric Bogosian as Eddie Nash, the nightclub kingpin Holmes and his cronies made the fateful mistake of trying to rob. The movie overplays the drugs-and-guns kineticism, yet the mystery of Holmes’ involvement in the Wonderland murders is a haunting one, and Cox does a canny job of depicting different versions of the events, with each point of view leading us closer to the (speculative) truth. When we finally do see what happened, it’s a genuine shock, a nightmare vision of a hedonist who forged his own hell.