The Acid King is an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting documentary about the life and legend of Ricky Kasso, an American teen whose 1984 murder of his friend, Gary Lauwers, became a major chapter in the early-1980s Satanic Panic. Kasso was a troubled drifter, but his love of AC/DC, fondness for metal music and dabbling with occult ideas in the midst of his drug abuse made him a narratively rich character for a media ready to spin stories and hype up cultural hysteria. Well, the media and generations of counter-culture musicians, artists and curios that have picked apart his life and contemplated his story’s place in the history of the American psyche.
Was Kasso representative of a generation of lost children, those born to parents from the idyllic 1950s into the dark late 1960s, who came of age in the emptiness of the 1970s and were pushed into bleak rebellion by the Reagan Revolution? Or was Kasso, contrary to such broad proclamations, just a dude who dealt acid, got a little too high and murdered his friend? Kasso’s crimes have become iconic and it seems like every perspective on his story has been told. The Acid King, directed by Jesse P. Pollack and Dan Jones (based on Pollack’s 2018 book) tries to encompass past scholarship on the story while featuring those who grew up near or even knew Kasso and Lauwers in their youth.
It’s an impressive undertaking even if the result is an overlong exercise in overwhelming detail, conflicting theses and strange stylistic choices. Fans of true-crime documentaries or those who are familiar with Kasso’s particular case might find a lot to love here, but audiences simply curious will likely be overwhelmed and frustrated.
I belong in the latter group. I respect Pollack’s research-heavy approach and his ability to bring in disparate perspectives to attempt articulating the circumstances of Kasso’s life, crimes and the mythology that grew around him. However, I found it difficult to connect with a few particular elements of the filmmaking.
First, and most notably, the film largely relegates the actual story of Kasso’s upbringing, crime and aftermath to text-based exposition cards while the interviews speculate or try to recollect supporting details from the subjects’ own lives to set the scene around the raw information on those cards. There’s no narration. No B-roll. Oftentimes the text is accompanied by photos, but it’s fundamentally non-cinematic.
Second, although Pollack does an impressive job bringing in a wide variety of interview subjects, much of the information they provide throughout the film feels superfluous to the story being told and mostly feels like their raw speculations regarding the crimes, motivations and outcomes. It’s a double-edged sword: Having so many people providing their diverse perspectives is a plus, but when coupled with the film’s dramatic detachment from the crimes themselves, it starts to feel unfocused and diversionary. It’s structured like a written oral history; the filmmakers feature David Breskin, whose “Kids in the Dark” oral history remains the definitive text on the subject.
It’s hard to knock the filmmakers’ work ethic or approach to the topic, and one leaves The Acid King with the impression that the book is probably an impressive piece of work. As a film, though, it’s frustrating. True-crime fans may find a lot to love, but the connection will be hard to make for others.