The Acid House

(Paul McGuigan, Britain, 1998)


It is the inevitable fate of Paul McGuigan’s The Acid House to be closely compared at every turn to the hit Trainspotting (1995), because of the Irvine Welsh connection (here promoted to screenwriter adapting his own material).

Once again, we are plunged into a scary, amoral universe of sensation-seeking, rampant aggression and tragic excess. Yet, despite a number of superficial similarities and echoes, The Acid House makes Trainspotting look positively slick and sunny.

The Acid House is – believe it or not – a far uglier film than Trainspotting. Its rawer edge goes hand in glove with a bleaker vision. It is comprised of three distinct stories. The first, “The Granton Star Cause”, wins the audience with its surreal dimension of revenge and comeuppance. An all-time loser, Boab (Stephen McCole), is turned into a fly by a beer-drinking God (Maurice Roeves), and promptly buzzes about infecting the food of those who have wronged him.

The film then engineers a turnabout with its second story, “A Soft Touch”. This is more genuinely depressing than the entire ouvre of Mike Leigh. Johnny (Kevin McKidd) is caught in a dead-end relationship with the abusive and whorish Catriona (Michelle Gomez) – and the intervention of his supposed mate Larry (Gary McCormack) only makes the situation far, far worse. Johnny, being the eternal soft touch, masochistically accepts it all. Rarely has the hopelessness of an impoverished social milieu been so palpable.

The third episode is more reminiscent of Trainspotting, since it involves copious amounts of drug taking, and casts Ewen Bremner as Coco, an irresponsible lad whose destiny it is to be struck by lightning one night. At this precise moment his identity passes into a baby being born nearby, and vice versa – turning the child into a foul-mouthed monster and Coco into a dribbling, uncoordinated lump. This crazy little parable is the most indulgent and least successful of the three stories.

The full and incorrigible political incorrectness of Welsh’s fiction blasts from The Acid House. Here is a writer who fearlessly wields brute stereotypes: women are grotesque slags or stealthy operators who will do anything to secure home and family; men are punch-drunk party animals or snivelling, over-educated, emasculated wimps. Sex (there is a lot of it) is either extravagantly perverse or miserably dysfunctional, and is almost always associated with an edge of violence.

Ultimately, Welsh’s message or attitude is profoundly misanthropic. His black humour sets about dismantling every kind of illusion or idealism, whether political or humanist. One might be tempted to call Welsh an anarchist – if one could be convinced that he believes in anything at all. The relentless cynicism of The Acid House on this level manages to be both impressive and disquieting.

This film is more fun to talk about than it is to watch. The three parts were designed to be shown separately on TV before being assembled into a feature – and they never come together as a whole. The overall rhythm is sluggish, and too many stylistic tics (hallucinatory montages, long segments cut to droning music, nausea-inducing hand-held close-ups) are put on a lazy loop.

The Acid House is only intermittently pleasurable, but it certainly sticks in the memory.

MORE UK grunge: The Football Factory

© Adrian Martin December 1998

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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