The Leech was one of the first films of this years event that I watched. Having enjoyed director Eric Pennycoff’s previous FrightFest offering, Sadistic Intentions, this film immediately caught my eye. Add to that the inclusion of Graham Skipper, Jeremy Gardner, and Taylor Gardner as the cast, and you have the ingredients for a perfect FrightFest film. The Leech is also one of the films that I’ve thought about the most since watching it. My review from FrightFest can be found below.
It wouldn’t be Horror Christmas without at least one film set around the holiday season screening at Arrow Video FrightFest. Filling this year’s Yuletide quota is The Leech. Written and directed by Eric Pennycoff, whose film Sadistic Intentions was a FrightFest hit back in 2019, The Leech places a devout priest (Graham Skipper) in a moral quandary when he takes in a newly homeless couple (played by real-life spouses Jeremy and Taylor Gardner).
Since his appearance in Beyond the Gates, actor, writer, and director Graham Skipper has become a yearly staple at FrightFest. This year the FrightFest audience gets double the fun as Skipper stars in not one, but two films. The first was a brief role in the anthology, Scare Package 2: Rad Chad’s Revenge. The Leech marks his second appearance and places Skipper exactly where the FrightFest family want him – front and centre. In The Leech Skipper plays Catholic Priest, Father David. First impressions reveal David to be a super friendly and positive person. Unfazed by his dwindling parishioners, David remains certain that come Christmas Eve, his church will be heaving. As he goes about bidding farewell to those who have attended, offering to salt the driveways of the eldery and other good deeds, he finds Terry (Jeremy Gardner). Feeling sorry for the wayward soul, David sees an opportunity to do good and invites him to stay at his house. It doesn’t take long however, for him to regret that decision.
Terry alone is trouble enough for the Priest. His dependence on drugs and love of loud heavy metal music is a stark contrast to the disposition of the man of God. Then, Terry soon invites his girlfriend Lexi (Taylor Gardner) to stay. Not wanting to be rude, (and having heard Lexi’s confessional earlier that day) David agrees to her staying. This is when the real fun begins. Filmed at the height of the pandemic, The Leech draws upon the anxieties and paranoia that was in the world, sucking them into the screen. Making a film set in an isolated location, with a character trapped indoors with people they quickly grow frustrated with, is a scenario that now feels relatable. Even the most happy of households had terse moments during the lockdowns and so it becomes easy to identify with David’s irritation at his new houseguests.
Filming during the pandemic when rules around film sets were at their most restrictive, creating a story with just three characters (and two households) was a smart move by Pennycoff. Some other films made at the same time appear to have obviously cut down a bigger story or cast to achieve production dates. The Leech feels tailor-made to the global drama, making everything on screen feel tighter and flow better. It helps immensely that all three cast members bring some of their best work. Over the last few years at FrightFest it seems like we’ve seen every side to Skipper’s range, but with The Leech he once again surprises the viewer. On paper David is the traditional uptight, overtly jolly do-gooder. Underneath that exterior though, lurks some darkness. David is riddled with repressed demons and as Terry and Lexi push his buttons, his facade slips and his inner anguish seeps out. It’s great work from Skipper as he communicates the intricacies of David’s psyche.
Matching Skipper’s performance, Jeremy Gardner channels his inner slob as Terry to create a character so infuriating that, just like David, the audience struggles to cope with him. Terry has some very memorable moments and lines to say and Gardner’s commitment really sells the character. One line revolving around the consumption of something non-pharmaceutical in nature, is delivered perfectly, generating exactly the right balance of laughs and horror. Amongst the more uncomfortable issues there is a lot of humour in The Leech and Gardner provides the lionshare of these moments. There’s a mischievous side to Terry and his insistence to push David out of his comfort zone is simultaneously wicked and entertaining. Assisting Terry in his sinful ideas is Lexi, played beautifully by Taylor Gardner. Her performance is wonderfully hormonal and her inclusion helps lighten the tone a little. Were it just to be two conflicting characters on screen, The Leech would get dark pretty quickly. By having a third character it gives each the opportunity to play peacekeeper between any warring factions, enabling the situation more time to simmer.
The dynamic between the threesome sizzles on the screen. There’s a playfulness to their performances when all on screen together. This is most apparent during a game of ‘I have never’. The game has been used countless times in television and film and never fails to work. The Leech is further proof that the drinking game makes a great conduit for secrets to be revealed, and the revelations here are plot-changing. Perceptions and intentions twist after this fateful binge-drinking session and place the film on the fast track to its dark and unruly climax.
Not content to sit back and rest on the superb performances of his cast, Pennycoff brings plenty to the table on the technical side. At several points during the film the lights in the house begin to falter. These faulty lights are a tell-tale sign of David’s flickering anger. It’s a subtle touch, but one that works to communicate the inner plight. The camerawork and lighting reinforce David’s mental state throughout. During the drinking game everything becomes disorientating. Everything on screen, the shadowy fade ins and outs, swaying camera movements, flashes of light and strange imagery, all help recreate the alcohol fuelled sensation. Later on, the more David’s mind unravels and the closer to the edge he is forced, the more intense the colours on screen become. Lots of red litters to screen accompanied by flashes of blue and green. It transports the viewer to a strange state of mind, mirroring the decline of David. With the camera also becoming more frenetic, everything – the performance and technical elements – are all communicating the inner workings, drawing the viewer directly into the fray.
The perfect gift for Horror Christmas, The Leech brings the fun, fright, and festivities to FrightFest. A reconstruction of the home invasion tale, The Leech will be uncomfortably recognisable to anyone who has had a guest outstay their welcome. Pennycoff captures the awkwardness and irritations that can arise during a home visit horribly accurately. Complimented by some expertly acted characters by Graham Skipper, Jeremy Gardner and Taylor Gardner, The Leech will have the FrightFest audience squirming in their seats. A perfect storm of darkly comic material, spellbinding technical elements, and expertly crafted performances ensure that The Leech is a wild, unruly, and entertaining time.
The Leech is due for release in December via Arrow Films