The psychedelic potency of fictional invertebrates is pure nightmare fuel in Alex Phillips’s feature debut All Jacked Up and Full of Worms. Yet worms alone don’t drive the film’s deviant characters past the brink of sanity. Rather, the creature’s hallucinogenic properties serve as unfortunate conduits for their most depraved intrusive thoughts. There’s no shortage of gross-out bodily functions and overtly taboo images on display here—milky vomit, slimy appendages, an infant sex doll which must have put Phillips or another crew member on some sort of watchlist. Yet somehow, Worms doesn’t feel like just another piece of dirtbag, edgelord cinema. It’s actually quite easy to glean what Phillips describes as the “morally challenging” but unexpectedly tender heart of the film, evoked in part through wonderfully saturated visuals, supposedly top-secret practical effects and a script inspired by the writer-director’s own experience with psychosis.
In short, the film follows scuzzy motel janitor Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello) as he embarks on an extended worm bender with his best friend Benny (Trevor Dawkins), who has become creepily obsessed with the aforementioned baby doll. They encounter an assortment of equally down and out individuals, who take a break from their various lives of crime and destitution to partake in the highly coveted slithering substance. Set on some of Chicago’s most sordid streets, Worms descends into a gonzo amalgamation of tangible grime and absurdist terror that will make even the most seasoned genre afficionados squirm.
Phillips spoke to me ahead of Worms‘s latest streaming premiere on Fandor. We discusses the film’s unexpected reception on festival circuit, its genre-spanning cinematic influences and the filmmaker’s continued efforts as a songwriter.
Filmmaker: First, I’d like you to map out a timeline from the film’s first conception through its production and eventual completion.
Phillips: Production was really long and so was post. It started as a short 20-page play that I wrote in 2016, when I was just being a PA on sets and kind of bumming around. It was about these characters going around and trying to buy drugs, basically. It was a pretty quick little thing, called Street Sharks for whatever reason, then I put it away. I made a bunch of short films between then and now, then I started writing more features.
What happened was I went through a tough personal experience, a mental health crisis type of thing. I hit my own type of rock bottom. I looked around and was like, “OK, so if you are a filmmaker and you want to make movies, just go for it. Stop making excuses.” That’s not always the best advice for everyone, but it helped me get going. Then I went back to that script and saw how its [sense of] carelessness led me to where I was. I wanted to work it into something that meant more to me and talked about all this.
Filmmaker: And what exactly do you mean by “long” when it comes to production?
Phillips: Well, we started production in 2020. We got through a week and a half before we were shut down because of COVID. I pulled out every favor I could possibly think of, then they were like, “You can’t go outside anymore.” But we continued shooting it for another year, trying to work within COVID protocols with no money. What we ended up doing was shooting for three to five days and then taking a two week break, because there were no vaccines or anything. And we couldn’t test everyone, because it cost money to test at that time. So it was just like, “Alright, we’ll take a break to see if we got COVID.” I know it’s not really a big deal now, but at the time we were freaking out.
Filmmaker: The reaction to your film has been predictably decisive, but it’s also been generally well-received on the festival circuit. What have you gleaned from audience reactions, and do you believe any of this feedback will affect how you approach the craft going forward?
Phillips: Being at festivals was awesome. The Fantasia premiere was amazing, as well as going to Fantastic Fest and Chicago International. We got the weird Golden Tentacle award at BizarroLand. Brooklyn Horror was great, too. While making this movie, I wasn’t really expecting certain results, because it was a no-budget film. It was made by me and my friends, and we were just trying to make something we felt passionate about. It seemed unreasonable to expect a great festival premiere and distribution. It was a “one step at a time” type of thing.
I’ve made shorts that have gone to festivals, but shorts don’t really have as much of a conversation around them. They’ve been in the same voice and divisive in a similar way, but I don’t think it was as loud, you know? So it was cool to get this reaction. What was also really interesting is that a lot of people picked up on the heart of the movie—it’s morally challenging, but a lot of people are seeing what’s underneath all of the worms and the dirt. That’s really exciting to me, and it makes me not want to change at all. There are some people who are extremely angry. I read a Letterboxd review last week where someone said I should be publicly executed. [laughs] The extreme reaction is kind of encouraging, I’d say. All of the people I meet who like the movie, I’m like, “OK, now we’re best friends.” We vibe.
Filmmaker: Obviously, there’s a lot of shocking imagery here, there’s also an underlying tenderness in many of these characters’ misguided actions. For example, Benny’s fulfillment fantasy of becoming a father and a family man has a really ugly and taboo prop associated with it, but his “love” for the baby is still kind of sweet. Was there anything specific you wanted to interrogate about fatherhood and family here?
Phillips: To put it simply, I wanted to talk about a yearning for normalcy and a “regular life,” but also feeling totally broken and too fucked up to deserve that sort of thing. I didn’t know which way was up when I began making the movie, and I didn’t want to make a movie that said which way was up, you know? I wanted to get at the raw heart of that conflict and explore it. I feel like the ending—where we’re in this glowing cocoon and they’re covered in ooze and dirt and this saccharine-sweet song starts coming in—is not meant to be ironic, but it’s also not meant to be picture-perfect either. It’s about everything we want, but also everything that’s wrong with everything that we want.
Filmmaker: That’s compelling. I also think that it’s easy for people to brush off transgressive filmmaking as being mean-spirited and/or intellectually hollow. Provocation and engaging with unsavory ideas can be healthy, especially from an artistic standpoint. Are there any filmmakers, contemporary or otherwise, that you found yourself looking to when it came to tackling a narrative that’s a little bit sour and intentionally nauseating?
Phillips: Basically every filmmaker I can think of deals with this sort of thing. The thing that first came to mind was Frownland, which I love. It’s all about this character who is exuding anxiety and we can feel his interiority without it being telegraphed to us. I really found that inspiring. Then there are the obviously aesthetic things, like Brain Damage—that’s not just body horror, but is also about this guy running around and dealing with horrible impulses, and trying to turn that into a visual metaphor. I have all of my DVDs right up here: I’m looking at Naked right now. I wanted to pull from all different genres, and I think grounding the film in worms and horror is a way to reach an audience. But I wanted to get heady with it—at least as much as I’m capable of.
Filmmaker: Speaking of the worms, I have a very real phobia of bugs and creepy crawlies. I know you’ve been asked about the practical effects involving the worms, and you’re a little hesitant to reveal exactly how you pulled it off, so I’ll leave that alone. What I am curious about, however, is how you conceived the various modes for their ingestion and the hallucinogenic effects they would provide. Was there any research on psychedelics that interested you in this regard? Any personal experiences with bad trips that aided in this macabre vision? You don’t often see hallucinogens being snorted or injected, normally these are natural substances that are literally digested.
Phillips: When it comes to the snorting and eating, I was trying to deal with the literal physicality of the worm. It’s a weird little guy. I thought that would be just fun to look at, and you snort other drugs, so why not this worm thing? As for the trip, what I really wanted to get at was the paranoia of an extended trip. I was trying to get at the feeling of psychosis more than the specific effects of cocaine, ecstasy, shrooms or whatever drug you want to name. The worm is hallucinogenic, but it’s also a paranoia agent and manic. I guess we can also call my own personal [drug use] journey research, but it wasn’t research when I was dealing with it. [laughs]
Filmmaker: It’s interesting, because right now it seems that hallucinogens are being used as remedies for a litany of psychiatric ailments, but there are also countless anecdotes and urban legends surrounding the lasting effects of drug-induced psychosis. I think pretty much every town had a kid whose older brother fried his brain on 20 tabs of acid at once or whatever.
Phillips: I’m the kid’s older brother.
Filmmaker: Hah, exactly. How did the current landscape of psychedelic drug use, or drug use in general, influence the narrative of the film?
Phillips: I don’t want to make a moral judgment on drug use, really. I just wanted to talk about what it’s like to go crazy and mess your own life up as opposed to making a value judgment on whether drugs are bad or not. I personally feel like there’s no right or wrong in the film, either. I’ve gotten a couple interpretations where people are like, “Oh, so you think drugs are bad or something?” But I was thinking of it as psychosis is bad, not drugs. I think of this more as an Altered States approach as opposed to a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episode.
Filmmaker: That makes sense. To me, when you look at the circumstances the characters find themselves in, you think, “Why not do drugs?” What are they maintaining in their lives that would make a descent into psychosis arguably that much more of a disruption to their everyday lives?
Phillips: Yeah. I was rewatching Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, and Gena Rowlands’s character is not operating within the rules of society. That’s why she gets carted away, but really it’s society that’s wrong. How are you an immoral person when the world itself is immoral?
Filmmaker: From a more technical standpoint, the film features so many colors, textures and physical sensations. Some are gross, others captivating, most oddly surreal. How did you and your DP Drew Angle settle on a look that’s both cohesive and chaotic?
Phillips: I showed him a bunch of Nicolas Roeg films, like Performance. Basically, he was really frustrated because every look I showed him was, like, 16mm film stock that no one has access to and we definitely couldn’t use. But I think it helped him figure out what information we needed in the camera. He cooked up this LUT to shoot on set that made it so we would crush the shadows and know how much shadow is in the shot. We would also pump up the saturation, way more than you even see in the film now. But it also showed when we were pumping in too much light for the look, that way we knew how we were going to manipulate it in post. Then when we took it to Dan Stuyck, our colorist, who did all this color in three days because he is such a pro. It’s a testament to Drew knowing all of my references and then knowing how to communicate that. It was pretty cool. I thought it was really important to have a lot of shadow, contrast and color washes, but I didn’t want to go full Mandy. It still feels organic and real.
Filmmaker: You touched on this a bit earlier, but I want to know about the movie’s original music, which is credited to Cue Shop, described as a “a music library and scoring co-op that produces music for media.” I really love the film’s closing song; it really shifts the vibe in a compelling way that feels totally unexpected.
Phillips: Cue Shop is these two guys, Sam [Clapp] and Steven [Jackson]. I knew Sam from high school in St. Louis. Sam went to college there, and we met and he did the score for one of my shorts, Who’s a Good Boy. I’ve always loved his work, so I reached out to him to do [Worms] and then because of COVID, the three of us sent tracks back and forth. I would write these long, weird emails, then they would run off with it and do something. It was a generative thing. I was also in the editing room with Troy [Lewis], so we’d be cutting a scene while they were making a track, then we’d go back and forth with it.
I really like the radiator rhythms, I think that’s my favorite besides the final song. For Benny’s apartment, I was like, “Can you make something that feels like it’s coming from a radiator that needs to be bled?” And they made this awesome thing. Then, for the last song, they hired this opera singer. Then I was like, “Can you push it into the pop-y world?” I wrote the lyrics, then she turned it into this beautiful melody. I don’t know how to actually write notes or anything, so it was this kind of poem that they turned into a song. We used Aimee Mann as a reference point for the beginning and the end. I was like, “Crank up the overproduced pop!”
Filmmaker: I didn’t know you wrote the lyrics. Do you have previous songwriting experience?
Phillips: Yeah, I wrote lyrics in a couple of bands in high school and college. One of them was called Youthbitch, which I didn’t really write lyrics for. But my other one, Too Dumb to Fuck, I wrote a bunch of songs.
Filmmaker: A Dead Kennedys riff, I love it. I know you’ve got a giallo-inspired himbo horror flick on the horizon. Are there any more details you’d like to share on that front?
Phillips: Yeah, I’m basically done with the script for that one. I have my producers and we’re ready to start going into pre-pro with it to shoot in the next month or so. That’s the thing on the horizon that I’m afraid of clicking “go” on. I’m just trying to make the script absolutely perfect. But I’m really excited.