One of the biggest problems with films that seek to push boundaries is that attempts to do so often come off as juvenile and tasteless, seemingly more interested in shocking the viewer as opposed to challenging them to engage with art they might find to be too much. Now, let me be clear: I am certainly in favor of being upset by a film to a degree. I believe that part of the joy in consuming horror films comes from that contained sense of having our world briefly thrown into disarray and allowing ourselves to immerse ourselves in the film to become fully engaged with what the characters are experiencing. Eric Pennycoff’s sophomore feature The Leech is certainly a film that seeks to make the skin crawl and induce an internal tightening at how awkward and uncomfortable it gets, and it is absolutely successful in doing so without resorting to shocking over the top theatrics.
The Leech centers around Father David, a quietly devout priest (played to the nines by Graham Skipper) who is struggling to maintain attendance at his small church. One day shortly before Christmas, he encounters a homeless man sleeping in the church, and in accordance with what he believes Christ would do, he welcomes the man into his home until he gets back on his feet. What begins with a simple act of kindness, quite literally a ‘WWJD’ moment quickly devolves into a surreal fever dream of sex, drugs, and paranoia. Terry, the homeless man, seems harmless at first, if not a little uncouth, but it quickly becomes clear that he intends to take advantage of David’s good nature for as long as he can until David confronts him. When his girlfriend Lexi moves in, the film enters a strange kind of restrained Straw Dogs territory in which faith is tested and reforged in unsavory new ways.
The performances in this film are fantastic. Graham Skipper is adept at portraying a devout and selfless priest who tries to see the good in everyone, someone who is hinted at having something of a wild side in the past, and even at his most exasperated with the rest of the characters he radiates a genuine sense of wanting to help people no matter how insufferable and grating they may be. He brings something close to naivety to the role, and it makes you sympathize with him that much more. You almost get the feeling that even if he weren’t a priest he would be doing what he could to help these people out just out of sheer kindness. No matter how frustrated he gets with them, his mantra of referring to them as merely struggling to find their way back reinforces his endearing optimism that eventually people will find God again and get their act together. There was something refreshing about a character like that, especially when Father David is clearly at his wits end but still genuinely wants to help these people. Jeremy Gardner and Taylor Zaudtke portray Terry and Lexi respectively, and they do so in a quietly unsettling way. Terry may come off as a good natured rough around the edges loudmouth, but his unabashed hedonism gives the character a touch of skeeviness that makes much of the film difficult to watch.
A central idea of this film can be summed up as thus: a man’s home is his castle. A sacred place, a sanctity. David’s home was inherited from his mother, and from the first time we see the house it’s quite clear that his home is almost as sacred to him as church is. He even has a large portrait of his late mother in the living room beneath the urn with her ashes in it. However, once Terry and Lexi move in, the house becomes anything but sacred. Not that Terry and Lexi are evil per se, but more Bacchian to David’s stuffy and uptight personality and with next to no regard for David’s boundaries. To them, nothing is sacred but the pursuit of pleasure, and the clashing of these two rigid and unyielding lifestyles provides for plenty of awkward and cringey moments that propel the film into truly creepy territory.
The Leech is a quietly shocking and upsetting film. I’d say it’s a slow burn kind of film but that implies there’s some kind of explosion, a dramatic climax at the end of a long simmer. Instead, we bear witness to a collective (further) slip into hedonism and the dissolution of taboos by the characters in this film, and in it’s getting under our skin and making us squirm it is an utter joy to watch.