I think I just killed my own childhood.
Is first-time feature film writer/director Alex Phillips trying to say something with All Jacked Up and Full of Worms or is he just looking to make viewers wish they were as high on hallucinogenic worms as the characters on-screen? Ask his target audience and they’ll probably laugh in your face for daring to presume they care. All they want is that out-there insanity writhing around in the slimy discharge left behind by a journey between nightmare and reality. Ask everyone else and they’ll tell you straight away that they left the theater twenty minutes in—a choice I will not begrudge them beyond the fact that doing so means they missed an unforgettable finale that almost makes sticking with this tour through Chicago’s seedy back alleys worth it.
That you must wade through a repetitive, nowhere-near-as-shocking-as-you-might-assume fifty minutes to finally get to that fever dream of intestine-strewn quasi-sexual release isn’t an easy thing to overcome, though. Allusions to Hell via an old interview with Angelo (Dodge Weston) attempts to prepare us for what the “worms” are insofar as a means to empower their vessels with homicidal malice, but it’s all mumbo-jumbo coloring to provide those squirmy invertebrates a path into the story. Because it’s his daughter Henrietta (Eva Fellows), a motel sex worker, who brings them to the forefront by practically daring her latest john (Trevor Dawkins‘ Benny, who’s so desperate to be a father that he buys a doll for practice without realizing it’s a pedo sex toy) to have a taste. He politely declines.
Enter Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello), the de facto lead who’s operating a bit left of center even before the sinful dirt (all our sins go into the ground with our bodies to be eaten by the worms and subsequently passed forward to new hosts) of Henrietta’s stash enters his orifice of choice. He’s had an awakening thanks to whatever hippie-infused mantra he, his girlfriend (Betsey Brown‘s Samantha), and their friend (Noah Lepawsky‘s Jared) perform while lying on the floor. It’s so profound that he can’t stay cooped up anymore despite Samantha’s need to exorcise her own pent-up energy (something Jared is very willing to “coax” out himself). So, Roscoe’s maintenance man goes to work at the aforementioned motel. It’s there that he meets Benny … and the worms.
Add two truly psychopathic miscreants for whom Roscoe meets in a very public sex act on the street (I’m unsure of their names since nobody is ever introduced to anybody despite everyone seemingly knowing everyone else’s names the next time they see each other) and you have your main cast embroiled in coincidental rendezvous. Benny meets Henrietta. Roscoe meets Benny. Angelo assaults Benny. Roscoe comforts Benny. Worms are eaten by them and the psychopaths (who have their own stash separate from Henrietta’s silver cigarette case). They make new friends. They cross each other’s paths once, twice, three times. They remember they’re enemies. They become friends. They wreak havoc. It’s a series of disjointed segues between increasingly unpredictable and emotionally unstable transients biding time until Phillips takes himself off-leash.
The climax is weirder and more opaquely obtuse than Roscoe and Benny’s meandering, but it has the sort of bold vision and unbridled filth that this kind of low-budget nasty needs. I wish Phillips had gone there from the beginning because it’s wild enough to exist within its abstractly surreal avant-garde provocation. Everything before it is too tethered to our reality (dark or not) that its glimpses behind the veil come off as comedic skits rather than intense fragmentation. A couple throwaway lines of dialogue implore us to believe the worms pull these characters’ consciousness through their third eye to mask what’s fantasy and what’s not (allowing them to therefore do whatever depraved acts they so choose regardless of real-world consequences), but it plays as idiots being idiots.
Roscoe is an idiot. Benny is an idiot. They flirt with going too far only to end up being too endearing for us to accept they’re actually being bad. That Phillips doesn’t really let them do anything that bad (beyond the obvious necessity of having Benny use his “baby” for its intended purpose) keeps us at arm’s length wondering if we were duped into thinking this ride was going to be crazier than it is. I’m glad he eventually lets loose at the eleventh hour, but it does ultimately feel too little too late. It’s strange to say a film with a giant puppet King Worm, sex crimes, stabbings, and mutating human/worm hybrids projectile vomiting is too tame, but here we are. Too much eccentricity. Not enough bonkers.
courtesy of the Fantasia International Film Festival