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In Wonderland, Val Kilmer gives the performance of his life as the drug-addled porn king John Holmes – after initially refusing to even read the script. Based on the real Holmes and real murders, the biopic also pays homage to the man’s genuine love for his wife and his mistress. But it can’t provide the answer to the mystery of the killer/s.

The infamous 1981 murders on Wonderland Avenue are an indelible part of low-brow Hollywood lore, a crime that combined every sleazy tabloid ingredient --drugs, guns, gore, sex and death. Labelled by the LAPD as the most gruesome crime scene since the Tate/LaBianca slaughter, the tangled web of participants and victims at the Wonderland house made a clear-cut solution to the case elusive. 

Four people were dead (Ron Launius, Joy Miller, Barbara Richardson and Billy Deverell) and the one survivor, Susan Launius, suffered severe head injuries and was never able to identify her attackers. John Holmes was arrested in Florida six months after the murders as a suspect in the killing of four people at Wonderland. He was acquitted the following year. 

The notorious drug kingpin Adel Nasrallah, known as Eddie Nash and played in the film by Eric Bogosian, was charged with the slayings in 1988, went to trial in 1990, but was freed due to a hung jury. In 2001, at the age of 72, he pled no contest to a large number of racketeering charges and conspiracy to commit the Wonderland murders. He was freed because of medical reasons after spending eight months in a federal prison.

The Wonderland murders also epitomised the end of an era - the promiscuous, pot- smoking Hollywood of the '70s ended at Wonderland, heralding the cracked-out, AIDS- decimated '80s. The man at the centre of the Wonderland murders, former porn king John Holmes, would die of an AIDS-related illness in 1988, after a career that was rumoured to include having sex with over 14,000 women in more than 2,000 hard-core films.

Wonderland, the film, begins after Holmes's career was washed-up, ended by his descent into drug addiction. To support his habit, Holmes befriended a number of dealers and criminals including the underworld kingpin Eddie Nash. Holmes owed Nash a fortune and supposedly masterminded a robbery at the dealer's house, in which his friends from Wonderland Avenue supposedly stole $250,000 dollars worth of drugs, cash and jewellery. 

Nash is said to have discovered Holmes’ involvement and forced him to squeal on his friends, resulting in their murder. But the central mystery of the Wonderland murders --what was Holmes' exact involvement? -- remains elusive and has intrigued people for years, including director James Cox and producer Holly Wiersma.

As director Cox says, "What always interested me in this project is that it’s true crime which has always been a passion of mine. But this was not just a murder story . There is also a unique love story, elevating this film above noir crime and making it universal."

To get to the heart of this love story, Cox, Wiersma and co-screenwriter Captain Mauzner tracked down Dawn Schiller, Holmes' teenage girlfriend at the time of the murders, and his wife Sharon Holmes, a former nurse who remained married to Holmes even after his career choice effectively ended their relationship. Both women, who were friends then and are good friends now, served as consultants on the film, spending time on the set during production, sharing their insights into Holmes' character and the era, and painting a very different picture of Holmes than one might imagine.

"a tortured soul "

As he learned from Schiller and Holmes, "John was a real romantic," says Val Kilmer, who plays him in the film. "He loved his girlfriend and he was still friends with his wife. He definitely was a tortured soul who did a lot of awful things to everybody, betrayed every one he knew, every dealer he ever met, but, in a strange way, he remained absolutely loyal to Dawn and Sharon."

Kilmer was always the filmmakers' first choice to play Holmes. His unique way of humanizing less-than-sympathetic characters, such as Jim Morrison in The Doors and Doc Holliday in Tombstone, seemed perfect for the role. As producer Wiersma says, "Holmes is not very likeable in the script so there has to be something about him that's charming, to explain how he was able to elicit such loyalty from both Dawn and his wife, Sharon, and every time Val smiles, you see that. Without his charm, it wouldn't have worked."

Kilmer was less than convinced, though. The sordidness of the story and Holmes' world turned him off and, despite pleas from the filmmakers and his agent, he refused to even read the script. Finally his agent and the filmmakers cooked up a plan. They asked Kilmer to consider the smaller part of Nash. Once Kilmer read the script, he quickly changed his mind and signed on for the lead.

The presence on set of both Schiller and Holmes was a tremendous help and inspiration to the actresses portraying them in Wonderland. As Kate Bosworth, who plays Dawn, says, "She wasn't just a cracked-out girl dating John Holmes. She was an innocent in a not-so-innocent world. And she loved him deeply." As Schiller herself remembers, "I was fifteen when I met John. I came from a not very together background and he fed a lot of the things that I needed. He was my first love and very charming – he was like a kid in many ways himself and we really connected. And though things went bad, I'm able today to honour some of the good memories."

"telling the story with respect"

Seeing her past relived proved to be a very cathartic experience for Schiller, now a wife and mother who is at work on a book about her life with John. From the beginning, she had been impressed by the research the filmmakers had done and their commitment to getting the story straight. Says Schiller, "I really felt that it was going to be an honest portrayal, that the truth was going to be finally told." She also enjoyed collaborating with Kate Bosworth who "was really open to listening to what my thoughts and feelings were at the time this was all happening. She, as well as Val and Lisa, have been very sensitive in honouring the feelings we had and very committed to telling the story with respect. "

Sharon Holmes feels that "the best thing that came out of my relationship with John is Dawn. I was mature; I can understand her falling in love with him. She got the good and the bad of John. I had the good and I chose not to have the bad." Sharon felt that Lisa Kudrow's tough portrayal perfectly captured the woman she was. 

Says Kudrow, "Sharon, John and Dawn kind of lived like this content, untraditional family for a while. He kept them very separate and sheltered from his work -- and then he developed the drug problem. Sharon Holmes was very straight and when she found out John was doing porno movies she cut him off," she explains. "The script's depiction of her is pretty accurate, so when I met with her it confirmed what a stoic a person she is; that she has rules and a code and she does not deviate from them."

Despite the sordidness of the film's milieu, Kilmer sees Wonderland as both an unusual romance and a morality play: "it's quite a vivid dramatisation of what happens why you try to get satisfaction exclusively from the senses. It just doesn't work."

Published January 29, 2004

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