Eric Pennycoff’s The Leech is yet another character-driven horror film shot under COVID-19 pandemic conditions. Pennycoff works well enough within the parameters of the restrictions, drawing tension and darkly blasphemous humor from many an unholy night. It’s a slower burn, as good samaritan morals lead to an explosion of violent Christmas horrors, and not without its lulls. That said, Pennycoff still finds a way to sustain religious commentaries as greed, gluttony and other sins break through the silence.
Graham Skipper stars as Father David, a devout priest with a barren flock who posts homily wisdom on Facebook. After service one day, he finds the disheveled-looking Terry (Jeremy Gardner) sleeping in a pew. Terry tries to crash in the church for the night, then accepts a ride home from David—where his belongings have been tossed outside by his now less-significant other. David remembers God’s teachings and opens his home to Terry, giving the derelict a warm bed, a private room and other amenities. He’s met with gratitude and humbleness from Terry, but that quickly morphs. David thinks he can save Terry—a man he knows nothing about, who starts taking more and more from David by the day.
The Leech earns its title because that’s what Terry is—a drifter who snatches a golden opportunity and drains its host dry. David ignores the children’s book teachings of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie in the name of God’s message, only with more dire consequences. Pennycoff’s screenplay explores a man of cloth’s ability to suppress guilt by preaching good Christian practices as Terry’s reign of chaos spirals into depravity. Escalation starts small, like blaring hardcore metal from a boombox instead of sleeping, and appropriately mounts once Terry’s off-and-on girlfriend Lexi (Taylor Zaudtke) enters the living scenario. David can’t resist the temptation of saving two wayward souls—and Pennycoff delights in rewarding his padre’s compassion with punishment.
The trio of actors at the core of The Leech display a noticeably comfortable chemistry. Skipper and Gardner have been traversing the independent horror circuit for years, while Zaudtke appeared with Gardner in Sadistic Intentions and After Midnight. Pennycoff’s barebones production has nowhere to hide, but professionals like Skipper and Gardner can carry the weight because they’ve done so countless times before.
The way Skipper clues us into Father David’s past is like a suspenseful IV drip, revealing his alcoholism or hinting at repressed homosexuality (enter Rigo Garay as Rigo, his previous reclamation case found at a truck stop). The more David exposes his past, the more Terry instigates David’s locked-away demons. There’s no one better at playing “scumbag” and “psychotic” than Gardener, which the film makes proper use of whether he’s chewing fried chicken with his mouth wide open or manically laughing, bathed in red Christmas lighting. Zaudtke fits in as an adequate disruptor, prodding her co-stars and provoking wilder overreactions—as far as the “struggle” of relying so heavily on acting, Pennycoff lays a rock-solid foundation.
That said, The Leech will be a harder sell for those who expect something more “horrific” in terms of presentation. Pennycoff paces at a simmer for most of the duration, relying on David’s continued dismissal of red flags until the film takes a lustfully bonkers veer that begins a more aggressively punchy finale. That’s when Gardener is let off the leash, although there’s some fluidity lost as Pennycoff keeps pushing further into obscure bleakness, to the point where some viewers may throw their hands up in response. The Leech is lurchy with purpose until it’s not, then goes all kitchen-sink almost uncontrollably. It’s not the cleanest transition from “reality” into perversely enraged horror territory, but it damn sure is an engaging swerve.
The Leech is a seedy, nefarious and scrappy morality tale that excels on the backs of its big-swinging performers. Skipper, Gardner and Zaudtke answer the call scene after scene, accepting the spotlight as well-wishes become inescapable nightmares. Pennycoff distorts religious imagery, questions the extent of confessional forgiveness, and goes the more talkative route to deliver a sustainably streamlined Christmas Horror entry. It’s not as exciting as shotgun crosses and snorting cremated ashes might make you think, but there’s an insidiousness to The Leech that sticks to your underbelly.
Director: Eric Pennycoff
Writer: Eric Pennycoff
Starring: Jeremy Gardner, Taylor Zaudtke, Graham Skipper
Release Date: December 6, 2022
Matt Donato is a Los Angeles-based film critic currently published on SlashFilm, Fangoria, Bloody Disgusting, and anywhere else he’s allowed to spread the gospel of Demon Wind. He is also a member of the Hollywood Critics Association. Definitely don’t feed him after midnight.