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[Popcorn Frights] THE LEECH Review – Disturbing Religious Horror Severely Lacking in Palatability

Megan Borns says The Leech has supernatural influences and explores themes of religious zealotry in an excruciatingly disturbing, allegedly comedic way.

Jeremy Gardner in THE LEECH (2022) directed by Eric Pennycoff which screened at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival.
Courtesy of Eric Pennycoff


The Christmas holidays are the perfect time for a Catholic priest to bring some of the most hard-hitting messages about kindness and thanksgiving to his parishioners in The Leech. Father David (Graham Skipper) is the epitome of a good and faithful worker in his church who lives strictly and lovingly according to his teachings and keeps his spirits up as his church dwindles into nothingness during the holidays. The first time we see him, he delivers a calm and patient sermon telling those who worship to allow into their home anyone in need, for they might be holy, thus already crafting the buildup to the central conflict of the whole film. David finds a man sleeping in a pew as the church closes, and after realizing Terry (Jeremy Gardner) has no ride home, he offers him a lift through the snowy streets.

Little does David realize, after an exceedingly long drive, that Terry is newly homeless after being kicked out by his girlfriend Lexi (Taylor Zaudtke). Seeing no other option, David recalls his sermon from the morning and offers Terry a place to stay for the night. Father David soon finds that inviting the vulgar and excessively rambunctious Terry into his life may be the worst decision he could have made. What follows is a quick and lewd descent into madness for David. As Terry and his girlfriend reunite, they jeopardize the sanctity of his home and test his faith. Writer and director Eric Pennycoff brings a stark and allegedly humorous criticism of the act of taking advantage of the kindness of others and religious zealotry.

The film goes all in on its horror elements and is a thoroughly terrifying film. As far as palatability, it bombs spectacularly. Several films are horrifying and fun to rewatch for various reasons: the horror is spectacularly crafted with sound and set design working together seamlessly, or the characters are sympathetic or expertly portrayed, among others. In The Leech, the performances are excellent, but the overarching acting is vulgar to abandon. Its rewatch-ability is nonexistent with an excessively long, incredibly uncomfortable scene that leads into a thankfully non-explicit sexual assault scene and Father David’s spine-chilling character arc.

Taylor Zaudtke and Jeremy Gardner in THE LEECH (2022) directed by Eric Pennycoff which screened at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival.
Courtesy of Eric Pennycoff

The disturbingly topical nature of the film is precisely the primary purpose of every awkward interaction between characters and plays out to a tee. Unfortunately, it's a grotesque way to depict it. This film is about taking advantage of kindness and testing faith but seeing it take a sexual nature is hard to watch. After Terry and Lexi coerce David into partaking in alcohol, drugs, and eventually sex, which we find that David is not a stranger to, he quickly transforms from a dweeby but immensely approachable character into a hate-filled, monstrous shell of a man. Suffering hallucinations and delusions that make the audience question the reality he experiences, David turns into a crazed and paranoid zealot who cares only for the safety of Lexi and Terry’s supposed child at the expense and well-being of every other person.

The central theme aside, perhaps the most well-executed element of the film was the cinematography. As mentioned before, The Leech is quite scary, and much of that is thanks to Rommel Genciana. With the impressive array of disquietingly close, off-kilter, and dark shots, this film would not have been as horrifying without the stark interplay of shadowy and bright scenes. Many of the later scenes depicting David with his face wrapped in bloody bandages are so disturbing and cloaked in shadow that I had to look away. The utter normalcy of a home during the holidays contrasted so eerily with the psychological and supernatural horror aspects was a great touch that, with different content, would have brought this film much higher regard.

Nothing is more irritating than a houseguest that will not leave. The Leech takes the idea of taking advantage of a person to a whole new level and shows how easily that hurt can change a person into a simmering cesspit of horror. Even with stunning set design and cinematography, the film delves so deeply into the idea that it becomes disturbing in an unpalatable way. Those instances, paired with the senseless violence, gore, and an uncomfortable throughline of religious zealotry, make this film incredibly mediocre.

The Leech screened at the Popcorn Frights Film Festival on August 11-21, 2022.



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