At the center of this is the devout Father David (Graham Skipper) who spends most of his days preaching to a dwindling congregation and blogging to an even smaller audience on what appears to be a Facebook that no one reads. In an early scene, one of his remaining disciples Rigo (Rigo Garay) tries to bring up how no one is really coming to his church any longer. David immediately dismisses this correct observation rather than reckon with what it may mean about how he is preaching and whether he is alienating people. It is the initial sign of his prevailing arrogance that will soon become a blight on his small world. Shortly thereafter, David encounters Terry (Jeremy Gardner) who seems to have drunkenly fallen asleep in the church pews. Though he initially kicks him out, he offers him a ride to see if his girlfriend Lexi (Taylor Zaudtke) will take him back in after a fight the couple had. When they discover she has thrown all of Terry’s stuff out and he has nowhere else to go, David offers to let him stay in an extra room in his house. Following this, Lexi actually comes to stay with them as well. We discover she too has been kicked out and is harboring a secret that is known only to David. The remainder of the film then accompanies this trio, with Rigo occasionally making appearances, as they slowly begin to sink into what seems like it may be madness.
The greatest asset that The Leech has is not necessarily its story, which can start to feel a little bit repetitive in moments, but the cast that brings it all to life. Having been an admirer of Gardner’s past work in low budget films like The Battery to the more recent After Midnight and even, funnily enough, the aforementioned Christmas Bloody Christmas, it is always nice to see the actor on screen. He is a dynamic performer who fully commits, taking what could be one dimensional characters and giving them a more madcap, unpredictable energy. Though both Skipper and Zaudtke are each solid in their own right, it is Gardner who once again proves to be the standout. In this case, he is playing an alcoholic with next to no sense of boundaries that could be simplistic if he were just not so completely chaotic. It isn’t just as it is written but in how he will do little things in the way he carries himself to the odd delivery of the lines that really capture something special. Each of his past works are unabashedly genre films that, in the case of The Battery and After Midnight at least, have something more on their mind. Though The Leech isn’t quite as emotionally expansive or engaging as either of those, there is still a more raucous yet riveting undercurrent operating just underneath the surface.
The specifics of this are best left to be experienced for yourself, but we begin to discover that David is not as saintly as he would like to say he is. The title initially seems to refer to his unexpected house guests who drink and party without much care of what impact this has on their host. However, there is a moment where the story begins to flip and we see David in a harsh new light that brings everything into focus. There is an appropriate sense of awkward humor in the buildup, including in one cringey scene of rapping with Rigo, though this all fades into the background. While the film initially invites us to view David as a kind figure, the more we come to sit with him the more we realize how he is driven by ego more than anything.
He speaks to all those underneath him in a patronizing manner and, though he would never admit this, all of the decisions he makes to help others are revealed as being motivated by making himself feel better. In particular, he treats Rigo, the one person who has stood by him, with growing callousness by holding over his head the fact that he had also helped him. The film finds a more psychologically terrifying niche with how David’s psyche is laid bare. Though he takes in others, he does so not because he is altruistic or compassionate. Rather, his mind has become so warped by a desire for any and all to look up to him. When that becomes threatened, both by his guests and his own growing descent into madness, is where Pennycoff takes the film off the rails as a reward for what does require our patience in getting there.
There are certainly plenty of quibbles to be had with the journey it took to get there. Even as the limited locations help to instill a sense of claustrophobia to the proceedings, the experience can also feel a bit limited and monotonous as we wait for the other shoe to drop. Thankfully, the cast remains more than capable of carrying the film through these more meandering moments. From the scene of drinking games to the hazy subsequent nighttime escapades, there is a silliness to it all. Seeing it riff on a religious fable of bringing in the downtrodden to reveal a more true terror is appropriately anarchic and absurd. The jokes primarily come from the growing social tension as we see David clinging to his superiority until he draws closer and closer to snapping. Some of the ways this is conveyed visually, with rotating camera movements and flashing lights, serve to disorient in a way that is fittingly showy yet still plenty sinister. It might not be for all tastes, but it still will tickle the fancy of looking for a fresh holiday horror to add to the limited pantheon. While The Leech starts out sturdy yet simple, feeling more like a psychological thriller than anything, when it takes a leap into the full-fledged spectacle of horror, it is worth getting lost in along with the characters.
The Leech is on VOD now.