Sunday, November 20, 2022


All Jacked Up and Full of Worms (2022) d. Alex Phillips (USA) (72 min)

Motel mop-boy Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello) is introduced coming down from a trippy tantric experience involving Samantha (Betsey Brown) and third wheel Jared (Noah Lepawsky). “I think I just killed my own childhood,” he breathlessly proclaims to his giggly, gurgling girlfriend, followed shortly by “I think that’s enough hippie stuff for today.” Meanwhile, across town, the schlubby, unkempt Benny (Trevor Dawkins) thrills at the arrival of his mail-order infant sex doll, intending to lovingly nurture it, excited at the prospect of finding a partner with whom to share his bundle of plastic joy. His initial choice, Henrietta (Eva Fellows), is a gentle, groovy prostitute who, unflapped by her would-be client’s inability to perform sexually, offers up a box of hallucinogenic worms as an alternative means of pleasure. Initially repulsed by the notion, Benny later returns to discover Roscoe tidying up and, upon consuming the creepy crawlers, the two strike up a surprisingly warm if twisted friendship that leads to encounters with strange, dark places and stranger, darker people.

As one might guess with a title like All Jacked Up and Full of Worms, Chicago writer/director Phillips’ microbudget feature debut is not going to be for all tastes. It traffics in the usual exploitation elements of nudity, bodily fluids, practical creature effects, violence, and transgressive sexualty, yet seemingly has more on its mind than the usual Troma backyard shock-n-awe antics of yore. I say “seemingly” because Phillips does not overtly tip his hand to reveal a clear message or metaphor. Like the mind-bending trips the titular invertebrates invoke, I suspect each experience will be highly individual, as will the evaluation regarding whether it was a “good high” or not.

Amidst the parade of sex and violence, viewers are guided by dueling fringe choruses beamed in from television sets, one being a Timothy Leary-esque talking head (“Dodge Weston”) espousing the transcendental experiences of “doing the worms” while the other is a children’s show hosted by a giant talking annelid, repeatedly schooling the tots to “unlearn their shapes.” Benny and Roscoe later fall in with Kelsey (Carol Rhyu) and Biff (Mike Lopez), a pair of anarchists who get off on clown makeup-adorned acts of social unrest.

It’s easy enough to chalk all of this up to “weird for weird’s sake,” and I suspect many might be inclined to mentally check out once things get too rough and raw. Yet, while Phillips doesn’t entirely manage the lo-fi achievements of, say, Davids Lynch or Cronenberg, marrying artistic experimentation with midnight movie madness, I found myself at least trying to make sense of the histrionics and mayhem unfolding before my eyes.

It’s an ambitious trough of ideas slung our way, where we’re invited to empathize with potential child molesters, serial killers, new-age spiritual junkies, and aimless slackers, seeing them as genuine human beings rather than cliches or plot devices. There’s a clear desire for connectness and community on display, where the happiest characters seem to be Kelsey and Biff, having found someone enthusiastic to indulge their shared worldview to the fullest. Our “heroes” Benny and Roscoe come off as lovable, stoner-type fuck-ups, not too far removed from the brash and brainless Trainspotting lads or Harold & Kumar, but the absurdist element of substituting earthworms feels too on the nose to be taken seriously as any kind of social commentary. Instead, it feels like a case of why the heck not use worms?

A chewier example involves Benny’s “Yo, I didn’t used to fuck with queers” speech, repeated several times throughout the 72-minute runtime. At first, it feels like a riff on the time-worn adage about men’s willingness to diddle anything while addressing homophobia at a certain level. But on subsequent recitations, it becomes more akin to Julius’ “Ezekiel 25:17” from Pulp Fiction, a refrain to fill the space and test the waters of those in Benny’s sphere. Whatever Phillips’ ultimate intention might be, he is doubtlessly inviting deeper examination; little touches like these indicate there is more on his mind than just cranking out another low-budget fright flick.

On a side note, I instantly recognized a certain bearded Chicago stage legend as our Leary stand-in (as well as Henrietta’s enraged father who chases down Benny with a baseball bat when she turns up pregnant, despite the fact that Benny is clearly not the sperm donor), and spent much of the movie wondering why he is entirely unbilled on the film’s IMDb page and credited as “Dodge Weston” in the onscreen credits. At first I thought there must have been some skirting of SAG/AFTRA regulations, but the union’s logo appears at the end of the crawl (haha), so I have no idea what was going on there, especially since this film seems right up our offbeat Windy City mainstay’s alley. Hopefully I’ll be able to corner him at the Four Moon Tavern some night and get the full story out of him.

The film has already enjoyed a rousing festival run (Fantasia, Fantastic Fest), playing everywhere from Austin to Austria to Australia, polarizing audiences and critics from Switzerland to Saskatoon, and now can be streamed at home via various outlets including Screambox. Equal parts goofy gross-out and dazzling delve into the human psyche, it announces Phillips and his creative team (special mention to Ben Gojer’s “special worm effects” and Cue Shop’s original music) as distinct new voices in the independent horror landscape. Time will tell how much those voices have to say, and/or whether we’ll be able to decipher their communiques, but I’ll be staying tuned to their frequency to see what comes out of the ground next.

All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is available now, and can be seen on various streaming services such as Screambox, iTunes, Vudu, Hoopla, and Amazon Prime.


No comments:

Post a Comment