Holiday Catharsis, Or ‘The Leech’
Eric Pennycoff’s The Leech is determined to claw at the inside of your skull while its aesthetic lulls and soothes you in an attempt to convince your mind that what chaos follows is a natural progression. But let’s start from the top first. Father David (Graham Skipper) puts a lot of time and effort into his church services but doesn’t get much turnout for his efforts. Terry (Jeremy Gardner), a homeless man found sleeping amongst the pews is awoken and taken in by David out of the good Christian part of his heart. It’s not something he’d normally do, but once in a while it’s nice to do something for someone for a change. Plus it gets you brownie points with the big guy. But the visit extends from a night into days, days into weeks, and from there time spirals out from the realm of meaning & understanding.
The annoyances start out small for David, and he allows some leeway for shenanigans as long as he gets his routine planning and writing done each day. But his tasks pile up to such an extent that his attitude towards the good will of others shrinks in his personal application towards Terry, and later his girlfriend Lexi (Taylor Zaudtke). As Father David’s patience wears thin an unexpected side of his personality is coaxed out by the arguably oblivious couple as hedonism begins to rear its head as the emerging ruler over David’s chosen life of quiet, humble piety. There isn’t much of a thread to follow story-wise in The Leech as it’s primarily concerned with its characters. They fight a social tug-of-war for the right to live as they like in the space they have, but as the battle continues Father David slips from his lofty ideals yet attempts to clamp down even harder against Terry’s chosen way of life.
If it weren’t for the eclectic performances of Skipper, Gardner, and Zaudtke especially, there wouldn’t be much to chew on during this film. But with characters portrayed like these, they both bring something multi-dimensional to the screen that makes you want to see how much they could torment each other. What’s admirable about the fact that The Leech is for all intents and purposes a Christmastime film, it doesn’t use the holiday as the reason for the torment to begin, intensify, or continue (like Christmas Vacation or Planes, Trains, and Automobiles does) because it knows we’ve already seen those situations play out far too many times. This feels far more personal than that. It’s a worthwhile jaunt for something that most would expect to fall in line with genre fiction such as horror, thriller, or any combination thereof but still knows that its audience is all too familiar with those visual languages and rhythms. So it cleverly plays with some of horror’s lighting and staging conventions as it uses interpersonal and sexual politics well, creating a discomforting friction even when the film’s characters wear the most obvious masks of social niceties. It’s a gradual shift of incongruencies that become more apparent through the actions of Father David.
Which brings me back to the clawing at the inside of your skull part. Good stories don’t need to be overly complicated or glued to a moral plucked to fit the script, it just needs to show a journey of sorts where one person or more than one person emerges from the other side changed. Pennycoff’s strength lie with his performers convincing us that they are so capable of changing as dramatically as they do here, and even if the movie isn’t entirely your bag the performances will give you more than enough reasons to stay through till the end. Perhaps it will hold some catharsis for you & yours if you look towards the holiday season with loathing for whatever reasons, because it certainly empties the chambers of tucked-away rage for the parties involved. Pour yourself a nice hot cup of cocoa with your favorite fixings and enjoy the unraveling of this weird holiday present.
The Leech is available to watch on Arrow’s SVOD service on Monday, December 5th.