All jackup and full of worms, as the title suggests, is one of the strangest movies you will ever see. The micro-budget horror film, out today, follows a group of outcasts, lunatics and good-for-nothings who share a taste for America’s hottest new drug: real worms. They sniff, shoot, and otherwise ingest, chasing a chilling high unrivaled by lesser, less grotesque intoxicants.
The character who enters the story at the point where a protagonist might enter a normal movie is a potentially dangerous idiot named Benny, played with panache and real guts by Trevor Dawkins. From there, the film retains a few reassuring similarities to a normal film: an instigating incident; increasing action and stakes; A, B and C stories that eventually connect. And yet, as I wrote when I first saw the film at its Fantasia Film Festival premiere in July, I had a feeling that at any moment the police could raid the theater and arrest us all. Have you read these stories about people passing out during it? horror 2? I came closest to that.
Watching the film often leaves one feeling repelled – but also for characters one finds despicable. And it’s all thanks 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 that tests the theory that you can make people fall in love with a movie full of hideous people – by using familiar cinematic joys judiciously. It contrasts your intellectual response with your emotional response.
The excellent music of the composing co-cop Cue Shop is the lynchpin for the success of the whole operation. Just as the film almost broke us, we hear a song reminiscent of one of Aimee Mann’s glowing songs for Magnolia. Its cathartic effect is reminiscent of the singalong from Mann’s “Wise Up” in magnolia — a moment that shouldn’t work at all, but works.
“I’d like to start my day with one movie or watch three, five movies a day. It would be a great day for me,” Phillips said in an interview with Fantasia, while sitting next to his producers and Cue Shop’s Sam Clapp outside a Montreal tavern. “I think the best stories come from some kind of visceral place, some kind of impulse. To me, this film is like taking a visceral feel and momentum to tell the story, and then also using cinephile language and other reference points in new ways—borrowing, stealing, but also using in an authentic way to to tell this visceral, unique, soulful story.”
He added: “I really like Paul Verhoeven’s films. Because the catharsis in them is like two tunnel things running into each other, which makes your head tingle in a special way. I want to do that. And I think this movie does that. You have this emotional truth, but then you also have an intellectual thing that’s like, ‘No, that shouldn’t be the case. This little family unit shouldn’t exist.’ But is there a happy ending?’
And: “You should feel the film instead of thinking it.”
The story continues after this clip All jacked and full of worms:
Phillips and Gojer met while working on a film by one of their Northwestern University professors, Spencer Parsons, the school’s executive producer. Clapp and Phillips both grew up together in St. Louis before moving to Chicago. Bernstein joined the project when she needed someone to fill in the gaps between Phillips, who wrote and directed the book, and Gojer, who focused on the horrific effects.
The film began its fundraiser with Phillips returning to St. Louis for an event coordinated by his mother, who works in the city’s nonprofit arts scene. They showed short films by Phillips, including “Who’s a Good Boy?” about a dog-like man who was adopted by a lesbian couple. Produced by Gojer, with a score by Clapp, it ends with a bunch of naked dog dudes walking around with collars.
“We showed this short film and we were like, ‘So … now we need money from you to do the feature.’ And they’re like, ‘What the hell?’ It was a tough sell.’” But people chimed in.
“We have an amazing photo of all the $20 bills on the table,” Bernstein said. “We took this photo around 2019 and now we have this feature.”
Combining favors, meticulous planning, and hard work to keep growing their budget, they recruited name actors like Creepy by Sixty-First star and actor Director Betsey Brown. Clapp, along with his brother Will, another musician, Steven Jackson, performed most of the music, actually playing it together in a shared rehearsal space through the cold Chicago winter.
“We’re trying to play as much real noise in the air as possible that’s being captured by microphones, which is definitely becoming a retro technique,” Clapp noted. “I think that led to a kind of handwork that matches the way the machine was shot.”
This element of craftsmanship is most evident in the film’s central monster. Gojer has worked on big-budget films, including Eli Roth’s Chicago-set remake deathwish and Aaron Sorkins The Trial of Chicago 7. But for All jacked up and full of wormshe started with nearly zero resources to create a worm creature with at least six points of articulation for each moving segment. He hired a team of assistants to work in his shop and help bring the creature to life.
“I think the older I get, the more I look back and realize I had it all,” Gojer said. “All the parts were there. I could do whatever I wanted. And I think confidence is the biggest thing I’ve lacked for a while. Anything you want to do, you have everything you need within you.”
Bernstein handled the logistics as Gojer became absorbed in the effects work.
“One thing I really love about the project, just from a logistical point of view, is that it’s so ambitious in every way,” she said. “When you don’t have any real funding behind a project and you’re putting it together – your co-workers and your friends and people who are willing to take a risk for 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 do we make this happen?’”
Phillips knows that some people will see his film as a provocation. But what he really wants 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 just anti-establishment or something,” he said. “I am deeply frustrated with how so much work is being done with a formalistic approach. In my opinion, this film has a formal structure. But it’s not necessarily a hero’s journey or anything. It doesn’t fit in a screenplay.
“But there are references in the history of cinema that you can connect it to. There’s a way to look at it, to put it in context. And I wish, I wish people would do that more. Be more adventurous and explore other influences. And not even necessarily in the cinema – through visual arts or through music. Create, go further and upwards, create and expand the language of the films.”
All jacked up and full of worms is now streaming on Screambox.
Main picture: Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello) and Benny (Trevor Dawkins) get jacked and covered in worms.