All Jacked Up and Full of Worms
Credit: Cinedigm Corp.

All Jackup and Full of Worms, as its title suggests, is one of the stranger films you’ll ever see. Out today, the micro-budget horror film follows a group of outcasts, weirdos and ne’er do wells who share a fondness for America’s hottest new drug: actual worms. They sniff them, shoot them, and otherwise ingest them, chasing a creepy-crawly high that can’t be matched by lesser, less grotesque intoxicants.

The character who enters the story at the time a protagonist might enter a normal movie is a possibly dangerous sicko named Benny, played with elan and genuine courage by Trevor Dawkins. From there, the movie maintains a few comforting similarities with a normal movie: an instigating incident; rising action and stakes; A, B and C stories that eventually combine. And yet, as I wrote when I first saw the film at its Fantasia Film Festival premiere in July, I felt like police might raid the theater at any time and arrest us all. Have you read those stories about people passing out during Terrifier 2? This is the closest I’ve come to that.

Watching the film, you find yourself frequently repulsed – but also rooting for characters you find despicable. And that’s all due to the impressive film vocabulary of Chicago director Alex Phillips and his collaborators, including producers Georgia Bernstein and Ben Gojer. All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is an experimental film testing the theory that you can make people fall in love with a film full of detestable people — if you skillfully enlist familiar cinematic pleasures. It pits your intellectual reaction against your emotional response.

The excellent music by the scoring co-cop Cue Shop is the linchpin to the whole operation’s success. Just when the film has nearly broken us, we hear a song reminiscent of one of Aimee Mann’s luminous songs for Magnolia. Its cathartic impact recalls the singalong of Mann’s “Wise Up” in Magnolia — a moment that shouldn’t work at all but does.

“I would love to start my day watching a movie, or to watch three, five movies a day. It’d be a great day for me,” Phillips said in an interview at Fantasia, sitting outside a Montreal tavern alongside his producers and Sam Clapp, of Cue Shop. “I believe that the best stories come from sort of a visceral place, from some sort of impulse. To me, this movie is like taking a visceral feeling and impulse to tell the story, and then also using cinephile language, and other reference points in a new way — borrowing, stealing, but also using them in an authentic way to tell this visceral, unique, feeling story.”

He added: “I really like Paul Verhoeven films. Because the catharsis in them is like two tunnel things, running into each other, that tingles your head in a special way. That’s what I want to do. And I think this movie does that. You have this emotional truth, but then you also have an intellectual thing saying, ‘No, that shouldn’t be the case. This little family unit shouldn’t exist.’ But it’s a happy ending?”

And: “You’re supposed to be feeling the movie instead of thinking it.”

Story continues after this clip from All Jacked Up and Full of Worms:

Phillips and Gojer met while working on a film by one of their Northwestern University professors, Spencer Parsons, who is the head of production at the school. Clapp and Phillips both grew up together in St. Louis before moving to Chicago. Bernstein joined the project when she saw a need for someone to fill the gaps between Phillips, who was writing and directing, and Gojer, who was focused on the horrifying effects.

The film kicked off its fundraising with Phillips returning to St. Louis for an event coordinated by his mother, who works in the city’s nonprofit art scene. They showed Phillips’ short films, including “Who’s a Good Boy?” about a dog-like man adopted by a lesbian couple. Produced by Gojer, with a score by Clapp, it ends with a bunch of naked dog-guys running around in collars.

“We showed this short, and we’re like, ‘So… now we need money from you to make the feature.” And they’re like, ‘What the hell?’ It was a hard sell.'” But people kicked in.

“We have an amazing photo of all the $20 bills on the table,” said Bernstein. “We took that photo in like 2019, and now we have this feature.”

They combined favors, meticulous planning and hard work to keep growing their budget, enlisting name actors like Scary of Sixty-First star and Actors director Betsey Brown.  Clapp, along with his brother Will another musician, Steven Jackson, played most of the music by actually playing it, together, in a shared rehearsal space through the cold Chicago winter.

“We try to play real sounds in the air that are captured by microphones as much as humanly possible, which is definitely coming to be a retro technique,” Clapp noted. “So I think that led to kind of a handcrafted quality to match the way the machine was shot.”

That handcrafted element is most clear in the film’s central monster. Gojer has worked on big-budget films including the Chicago-shot Eli Roth remake of Death Wish and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7. But for All Jacked Up and Full of Worms, he started from next to zero resources to create a worm creature with at least six points of articulation for every moving segment. He enlisted a team of assistants to work in his shop and help bring the creature to life onset.

“I think, the older I get, the more I look back and realize I had everything,” Gojer said. “All the pieces were there. I could do whatever I wanted to. And I think confidence is the biggest thing I think I was lacking for a while. Anything you want to do, you have everything within you that you need to do it.”

Bernstein handled logistics during the times when Gojer was absorbed by the effects work.

“One thing that I really love about the project, from just a logistical standpoint, is that it’s so ambitious in every way,” she said. “When you have no real funding behind a project, and you’re putting it together — your collaborators and your friends and people who are willing to take a risk on you — it was really exciting to be part of a project that was just so ambitious. We never said we couldn’t do something. It was like, ‘Okay, how are we gonna make this happen?'”

Phillips knows some people will see his movie as a provocation. But what he really wants to do is to provoke people to take creative risks.

“I feel like this movie is challenging, but I don’t want it to be like a movie that’s only anti-establishment or something like that,” he said. “I’m deeply frustrated with the way that that a lot of work is made, with a formalist approach. This movie, I believe, has like a formal structure. But it’s not necessarily a hero’s journey or something. It doesn’t fit into a screenwriting book.

“But there are references in the history of cinema that you can connect it to. There’s a way to look at it, put it in context. And I want, I wish people would do that more. Be more adventurous and explore other influences. And not even necessarily in cinema — through visual art or through music. Create, go onward and upward, create and expand the language of movies.”

All Jacked Up and Full of Worms is now streaming on Screambox. 

Main image: Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello) and Benny (Trevor Dawkins) get all jacked up and full of worms.