While horror films often succeed or fail based on how they create tension, the genre has difficulty correctly utilizing some tension-creating tools. Some horror films actively play into paranoia, and when deployed right, it can greatly increase the ceiling of the scares. In the case of the new horror film, All Jacked Up and Full of Worms, paranoia weaves its way through the entire runtime. Following a duo experimenting with a new psychedelic drug, director Alex Phillips sends the audience into a goofy but paranoid-fueled hellscape.
While working at a hotel, Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello) struggles to keep his cool while doing drugs with his girlfriend Samantha (Betsey Brown). As he realizes his relationship continues to crumble, he meets Benny (Trevor Dawkins). Benny has recently come into possession of worms, which induce psychedelic trips. As Roscoe and Benny’s relationship begins to change, the two find themselves on the ultimate trip, which soon draws the attention of others who want in on the worm trade.
On paper, one could almost argue that All Jacked Up and Full of Worms could be classified as a drug drama more than a horror film. However, Phillips uses his camera and style to sell the psychedelic sequences. These grotesque and shocking experiences rock you to your core. The film quickly embraces a grindhouse sensibility, which helps ground the movie in a gritty and dirty tone. Verging on disco-slasher vibes, Phillips lets the obscured colors permeate the images he captures but knows when to swap to his darker palette when needed.
At times, the unsettling nature of All Jacked Up pushes the limits of acceptability. There’s an upsetting level of immaturity and nativity from the main characters that leads to their hellish journey. At the same time, Phillips forces the audience to live in uncomfortable sequences depicting public sex acts, open cheating, and even the appearance of an infant sex doll. At times, Phillips challenges his audience to stick with the film, and that discomfort is as essential to creating tension as the visual tools he embraces.
The performances throughout All Jacked Up vary in quality. At times, Botello delivers a twitchy, unsettled performance that channels his character’s drug use habits. However, Dawkins vacillates from extremely sympathetic to actively frustrating. Other characters enter the film to simply shock and awe and feel like they’re plucked out of a John Waters film. This works on some levels, but other times clashes heavily with the grim vision that Phillips has established. One might find Pink Flamingos is a strong influence on All Jacked Up, and whether you enjoy the former film may determine how far you’re willing to go with All Jacked Up.
While the low-budget constraints of All Jacked Up and Full of Worms could have been a death sentence, Phillips and his team create a unique world within those limitations. Thanks to their craftsmanship and skill, the indie horror becomes far more interesting in how it crafts visuals and handles narrative challenges. Phillips’ debut is full of ideas, and it will be interesting what kinds of stories he chooses to tell moving forward.