“When we help others, we bring them face to face with God by bringing them face to face with us…”
…The Church is all about doing good for others (or so they claim), but in writer/director Eric Pennycoff’s sophomore feature The Leech, which just played at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival, one man’s faith is put to the test to see how much he truly believes in that.
Starring an excellent cast of indie horror favorites, The Leech is a horror comedy which features Graham Skipper as Father David, a priest with a dwindling flock who is deep up his own butt with his preachings. When he discovers down on his luck bum, Terry (Jeremy Gardner) taking a catnap in the church a few days before Christmas, David offers to let him stay at his home for a night. But what begins as one night soon becomes days, with Terry inviting his girlfriend Lexi (Taylor Zaudtke) to stay as well. Terry swears he aint no leech, but David is about to find out just how much patience he is capable of.
Count me as someone who’s not a fan of organized religion, especially when it comes to the bible. Hard to take a faith seriously when it promotes “pro-life” ideas, but then turns its back on anyone who doesn’t commit their entire self to its nonsense. If you’d also be cast out as a “sinner”, then I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy The Leech because it’s a sinfully delicious dismantling of the Church and everything it claims to stand for.
When we first meet David, he’s already on the verge of a crisis. As his pianist Rigo (Rigo Garay) points out, he’s giving sermons to a practically empty church. No one but Rigo interacts with his nightly blog posts. And the confidence in his statements about God are a little too confident, as if he’s forcing himself to believe what he already knows to be false. Enter Terry, in direct opposition of David, ready to push his faith to its absolute limits.
This is the second time Pennycoff has cast Gardner as an absolute madman, and if you’re not already familiar with the actor/director, you’re about to get a good dose of why. Gardner delivers a car crash of a performance that slams into the screen going full speed. The uglier and more obnoxious it gets, the more impossible it becomes to look away. Terry is the shining foil to David’s dull personality. He’s loud. He’s crass. He breaks all of David’s house rules, including blasting loud music in the middle of night, smoking inside…whatever David wishes, Terry finds a way to rebel against it. For a while, The Leech walks the line of familiar comedy territory like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, with David as the Steve Martin to Terry’s John Candy. Only Skipper is much creepier than Steve Martin, oozing the unsettling vibe of a man struggling to remain polite and failing miserably.
Pennycoff allows the actors to go nuts (literally) in this over-the-top sandbox. None of the acting comes off as restrained, yet it never feels like too much, either. The Leech is an experiment in escalation which consistently pushes the buttons of this trio of oddball housemates. All of the comedy comes from entertaining moments of relief that follow uncomfortable exchanges. You never know if these characters are going to crack a smile or choke each other out (or both). Because it isn’t just David being pushed to the edge. At the same time that this “sinful” couple is grating on his nerves, he pokes and prods at every little piece of them which his faith doesn’t allow (at least, according to him), attempting to turn them into the God-loving people they most certainly are not. The Leech asks the question of who is truly “the leech” here, the homeless couple taking advantage of David’s kindness, or David (aka the Church’s) predatory habit of manipulating the downtrodden into becoming servants of God.
As with his previous outing, Pennycoff’s film is light on the horror and heavy on the quirky comedy (emphasized by Eric Romary’s peculiar score), letting the performances provoke the seat-squirming. There is something deeply unnerving about David’s insistence on his beliefs, the way in which he lives a “spotless” life, and that goddamn portrait of his mother he has hanging in the living room underneath her ashes. Through consistent images of religious iconography and David’s strange dreams, Pennycoff infuses a psychological unease that builds to a mixed bag of a final act. The audience is left to wonder what’s real and what’s not until the very end, beginning with David’s belief that Lexi came to confession to say she’s pregnant, and ending with…well, you’ll have to see. Needless to say, much of the horror in The Leech comes from the controlling nature of the Church with a timely skewering of what “pro-life” actually means, if anything.
Engaging as it is, the one area in which The Leech gifts a lump of coal is in the film’s descent into holiday madness. While Pennycoff does a good job developing the state of mind of the characters, there isn’t quite enough of the eerie occurrences building throughout, arriving with too little too late to hammer home the sinister turn of events. The film also runs dry when it comes to seasonal atmospherics that could've given it an extra lift on the fear scale, a rather straightforward presentation for most of the way that never quite gets under the skin the way it intends to.
While missing some of the ho-ho-horror you may be craving, Pennycoff’s film is a Santa’s sack of tense laughs that keeps your eyes glued to the screen until they’re as wide and crazed as David’s. The Leech is one horror film that most certainly does not “suck”.
By Matt Konopka
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