What’s grosser than worms? A lot, in turns out, in All Jacked Up and Full of Worms, the adjective-defying film debut from Alex Phillips. Descriptions like “revolting,” “repellant” and “shocking” feel totally inadequate to describe a film that is also, somehow, very moving.
It will be hard to detail anything in All Jacked Up and Full of Worms without this website receiving frantic notifications from Google AdSense — Restricted Ad Serving! Shocking Content! — but let’s try. One of the first characters we meet is a guy named Benny (a fearless Trevor Dawkins) who receives a box in the mail, declares he’s about to be a father, scares the delivery guy with remarks that seem simultaneously gay and homophobic, and then opens the box to find something inside that should absolutely not exist. Think Lars and the Real Girl, if Lars were a person who should be set on fire.
He and Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello), a motel maintenance man who is in an unbalanced triad relationship that includes the spiritual seeker Samantha (Betsey Brown), end up hanging out and doing worms, which are the hot new drug. Worms isn’t a euphemism; worms are worms. How do you do worms? The least horrifying way is to eat them, and then enjoy a jacked-up illusion of power. Worm-doing connects Benny and Roscoe with a cavalcade of weirdos who include a sadistic couple fixated on clowns. Horrors ensue: flesh, knives, worms.
Somehow Phillips and his very imaginative team — especially producer Ben Gojer, who masterfully created the film’s hideous creatures, and a team of magnificent musicians at Cue Shop — keep us watching the festival of gross. Or at least they did when I saw the film Thursday at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, where audiences are openhearted, sophisticated about the difference between real life and film, and prone to applaud things like subtle subversions of cliches. A more middle-of-the-road audience would have bailed when they saw what was in the box. There were moments in All Jacked Up and Full of Worms when I thought the theater might be raided, and we might all be arrested. But Fantasia being Fantasia, the film ended with rapturous applause.
I think the audience was applauding not just the expertise of the film, but its sheer audacity. Some of the images feel hard to justify — I kept struggling with a personal rule about not judging fictional characters — yet the film seems to have a strong ethical undercurrent and a dream for all of us to be better to each other.
I kept thinking back to something I heard once, and I can’t remember who said it. But it’s essentially, “When you get into drugs, make a list of things you would never do. Because those are the things you’ll do.” Lying, cheating, stealing.
All Jacked Up and Full of Worms made me profoundly sad that people who turn to heroin, cocaine, worms or whatever else in search of elevation often end up so depraved. Looking for a shortcut to a higher plane takes you lower than you were when you started. The only drug I know of that actually takes you out of your dingy world and turns you on to a completely new one — without wrecking you in the process — is a movie. And All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is a hell of a drug.
Main image: Betsey Brown in All Jacked Up and Full of Worms.