If you know me at all, then you already know I'm a fan of the Christmas horror scene. Writer/director Eric Pennycoff's The Leech starts off as a slowly simmering psychological and theological thriller before rapidly spiraling into something much more dark and demented in its final third. The Leech centers around Father David (Graham Skipper), a rural priest with barely a flock to hear the messages that he ends up placing on his social media pages in the hopes that someone will hear them. Pious to a fault, he's called to live into teaching to be kind to strangers when the very strange Terry (Jeremy Gardner) shows up sleeping in a church pew. Father David offers him a place to stay for the night, an act of generosity that becomes much more when Terry's on-again/off-again girlfriend, Lexi (Taylor Zaudtke), also shows up and wills herself into the generous arrangement.
By now, you're probably thinking to yourself that you have The Leech all figured out.
You are, most likely, at least partially right. However, suffice it to say that Pennycoff has a few tricks up his cinematic sleeve and it's never quite clear, until Pennycoff wants it to be clear, exactly what's going to unfold. Father David is determined to save these two wayward souls. These two wayward souls? Well, they're not particularly concerned with salvation.
The Leech is a darkly humorous film that nears pitch black as Terry and Lexi push Father David's boundaries and, in return, Father David's darker side begins to reveal itself the further down the spiral everything goes here. The Leech is funny until it's not, though it's disorienting final third has a certain demented glee to it that comes vividly to life thanks to Rommel Genciana's dark yet festive lensing and Eric Romary's spirited original score. Editing by Bobby Sherbert also helps to build the film's emotional rhythms and heightened sense of anxiety.
While The Leech features a relatively slight four-person ensemble, Rigo Garay is also here doing top-notch work as the aptly named Rigo, it's a strong ensemble with indie horror vets who exhibit quite the remarkable chemistry. Skipper is a piercing delight as Father David, somewhat unnerving the moment you meet him even if you don't entirely understand why.
Over time, you understand.
Jeremy Gardner serves up a psychedelic tour-de-force as Terry, somehow making us have empathy for him no matter how demented and antisocial his behavior gets. You can't help but like him, a fact that makes us also understand why Father David feels drawn to him. The same is true for Taylor Zaudtke's Lexi, a pregnant young woman whose symbolism practically bounces off the screen.
It would be a shame to give away too much about The Leech. Pennycoff takes his time building the film's narrative and it pays off with a bonkers, trippy climax that won't likely be what you're expecting after everything that has unfolded. The Leech had its world premiere at the Chattanooga Film Festival and should have no problem at all finding an audience given Arrow's strong reputation for embracing the best of indie and experimental horror. While The Leech won't likely please those seeking a gorefest or non-stop action, for those seeking a cinematic experience that weaves together compelling narrative with psychological and theological thrills The Leech is definitely a film to check out.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic