Horror fan favorites Graham Skipper and Jeremy Gardner go toe-to-toe in Eric Pennycoff’s The Leech, which is the kind of Christmas movie that makes you want to hide inside and refuse to see anyone during the festive season (i.e. the best kind). The writer-director’s follow-up to the gnarly Sadistic Intentions also reunites Gardner onscreen with his now-wife Taylor Gardner (née Zaudtke). The movie has a similarly wild, madcap energy to its predecessor, but it’s also a ruthless slow burn. You wait the entire thing for something terrible to inevitably happen but, by the time it does, it’s no longer clear who the real villain–or indeed leech–actually is.
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Skipper is Father David, a diligent and well-intentioned priest with about four people left in his flock who’s ably supported by Rigo Garay’s Rigo, a former runaway that David got off the streets and helped rehabilitate his life. The stage is set for the holy man to take on another project, and it presents itself in one of his very own pews in the form of Gardner’s down on his luck Terry, who looks homeless with his unruly, unwashed hair and grungy clothing, but that may be by design. David invites Terry into his home while he sorts out a dysfunctional relationship with baby mama Lexi (Taylor Gardner), who the priest knows is pregnant because she told him during confession, unbeknownst to Terry. Before too long, Lexi is staying with David too and they’re causing chaos.
The theme of Pennycoff’s latest is essentially that no good deed goes unpunished. Skipper and Gardner are perfectly cast in their respective roles, and watching them play off each other demonstrates, as if further proof were even needed, that they’re two of the most gifted actors working today. Skipper is resplendent in his priestly robes–I’d gladly watch him pontificate, even as David starts to lose his grip on reality–and the actor’s performance is so utterly convincing that you even start to feel bad for him, despite the fact the Catholic church obviously sucks. The priest gradually becomes virulently anti-abortion, and there’s brewing tension between David and Terry as it becomes clear he’s harboring some homosexual tendencies, but Skipper paints his preacher with compelling, and competing, shades of grey. He’s neither saint nor sinner, just like the rest of us.
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Gardner’s Terry proves to be the perfect foil for him, needling David at every turn even when he doesn’t necessarily mean to, like when Terry blasts metal late into the night. The beloved indie star is doing a similar accent to the one he employed in the hilarious, and criminally underseen, Tex Montana Will Survive! which perfectly suits how ignorant and casually bigoted Terry is while providing a charming musicality to some of his most shocking revelations. At one point, Terry casually quips that Lexie is “extra hormonal,” clarifying that “it ain’t the rag either.” Likewise, he actively dismisses poor Rigo as though he’s somehow above him, despite having no place to live and virtually nothing to his name. The man has zero manners, putting his bare feet up on the coffee table and picking his ears while people are trying to eat around him. The Leech is frequently very funny, mostly thanks to Gardner, but it’s in an awkward, cringe-worthy way, such as when Terry describes giving a woman “the good old fashioned chimney sweep,” which somehow translates to sex.
Things take a turn, as they are wont to do, during a rousing game of Never Have I Ever but Pennycoff doesn’t do anything obvious with the setting itself or with his trio of characters, all of whom appear to be hiding secrets. By the time David is delivering a sermon to an empty church, in near total darkness, all bandaged up looking like The Weeknd accepting an award, it should be obvious where the story is headed and yet The Leech doesn’t unfold as you’d expect it to. Even the pacing, although deliberate, places the weight on seemingly innocuous moments. Pennycoff flirts with themes of classism, the nature of charity, sexism, racism, and even repressed homosexuality but, at its core, this is a slow-burn tone poem with a truly loopy and utterly discombobulating payoff. Christmas music is winningly used throughout, though the score is overpowering at times, drowning out some of the dialogue. It hardly matters, though, since by the end you’ll be left wondering not just who the title refers to, but also what was real and not.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Eric Pennycoff
Writer(s): Eric Pennycoff
Stars: Graham Skipper, Jeremy Gardner, Taylor Gardner, Rigo Garay
Release date: December 6, 2022 (VOD)
Run Time: 82 minutes