Watching festival films without a festival audience is quite something. I’ve seen and loved many a film that doesn’t work by any conventional measure, but plays like gangbusters with an audience primed to enjoy it. I’ve seen and hated movies at home that I might’ve enjoyed with an audience. They’re usually weird, unconventional, underground movies that rely on a critical mass of WTF laughter to really sing. I’ve seen a lot of these films. Hell, I’ve made one. Plenty of them work well with and without audiences, and plenty don’t work in either scenario. But an audience usually makes a difference.
That weighed heavily on my mind as the credits rolled on my first Fantasia film of 2022, writer-director Alex Phillips’ debut feature All Jacked Up And Full Of Worms. In many respects, it’s quite similar to films I’ve championed before. It’s about truly bizarre characters in extreme situations; it’s got likeable homemade special effects; it features a slew of memorable lines and images. But taken in isolation (Covid isolation, in my case), a film can’t get by on oddball DIY energy alone.
The more-developed of All Jacked Up’s dual protagonists, slobby loser Benny (Trevor Dawkins), is a confounding, truly unique weirdo. Obsessed with becoming a dad (like, always wearing a nametag saying “Hello, My Name Is DADDY”), yet perpetually single for self-evident reasons, Benny’s introduction sees him take delivery of a courier box containing his “baby” – more specifically, a “youth series pleasure doll”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Benny’s relationship with this doll is confusing and inconsistent. One minute, he’s upset that he even ordered it; the next, he’s slavishly caring for it; then, er, using it for its intended purpose; and later mourning its “death”. These shifts come mostly out of nowhere, and never is the fact that he owns a child sex doll properly addressed. It’s very odd, though given its dramatic weightlessness, not quite as shocking as it was likely intended to be.
Frustrated with his baby situation, Benny urgently seeks out prostitute Henrietta (Eva Fellows), only to collapse in a puddle of male impotency and spend the rest of their session pleading with her to be the mother of his child. Henrietta is even less clearly characterised than Benny, but we know two things: she’s not interested in Benny’s proposition, and she is interested in ingesting hallucinogenic worms with him. Thus, the titular up-jacking kicks off.
It’s around here that Benny runs into our other main protagonist, Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello). Roscoe’s trapped in a half-assed polyamorous relationship with his hippie girlfriend and her partner. He isn’t getting much out of their attempts to help him find himself, and happily reaches for the worms to get away from the situation, befriending Benny in the process. Botello (who did great work with a small role in The Art Of Self-Defense) imbues Roscoe with a focused energy somehow simultaneously nervous and chill, making him far more interesting than he likely reads on the page.
When the two characters meet, they’re both at the ends of their respective tethers, and it only remains to – what else? – get super fucking high. From there, the movie ramps up the absurdity curve in fits and starts. Benny and Roscoe’s spree leads them to commit crimes, make a new friend (and get him on the worms too), and connect up with a couple of hardcore worm users, before things take a turn toward a bloody end.
The further away All Jacked Up gets from reality, the stronger it becomes, and its psychedelic, increasingly violent second half will be remembered much more than the halting and uncomfortable first. The clunky and unmotivated cinematography suddenly embraces its grimy texture and muddy colours. The weirdness fills the whole frame in this stretch, rather than feeling like a tiny oasis in an otherwise bland and ordinary world.
There’s plenty of stuff in here for cult audiences to latch onto. The surreal dialogue is quite funny, often riffing on hippie philosophy – like a transcendent sequence about “unlearning shapes”. The gore and creature effects are likeably low-budget, even if the “Special Worm Effects” credit in the opening titles ends up disappointing somewhat. And it’s anchored by two strange, uncomfortable performances as two strange, uncomfortable men. Most importantly, the film espouses a commitment to griminess, both through its characters and, increasingly, its filmmaking. It’s sure to be described as “dreamlike,” and while that doesn’t excuse the way characters appear, disappear, and change their entire personalities at random, it does at least work aesthetically.
As in many underground films whose underground-ness is a chief back-of-the-box feature, I just keep wondering what’s being said here. The story is super slight. Characters exist in their own universes and overlap only through shared worm use. There’s some thematic material about realising one’s true potential, and the gooey ending suggests the whole thing is about Benny learning to be a dad, but none of that bears out in the action. Benny is just too inconsistent and unlikeable, and everyone else too underdeveloped, to really care about them. That leaves only their worm trip – which, though fun to watch, feels aimless until its Henenlotter-esque climax drops down out of nowhere. There’s even a suggestion, through somewhat confusing editing, that the whole thing could have been Roscoe’s hallucination, making the whole exercise even more pointless.
It might be futile to ask for more functional storytelling from All Jacked Up And Full Of Worms, and indeed committed underground cinema fans might see the lack of conventional character arcs or consistent internal logic as a plus. There’s a vision here, and it’s always fun to see filmmakers trying to achieve greatness, like their characters, by getting down in the dirt. The film reportedly had production issues connected to the pandemic, but the production isn’t the main issue: a little more script work could’ve turned this weird-tasting, dirty mess of worms into a delicious, nutritious, yet equally-dirty meal.
Maybe I’d have liked Worms more with an audience. But I suspect that while it’d accentuate its strong points (its odd performances, its ramp-up in wildness, and its incredibly strange climax), the fundamental issues at its core would remain. Does that matter? I don’t know. Maybe I just need to do some worms, man.