THE LEECH **** USA 2022 Dir: Eric Pennycoff. 82 mins
Writer-director Eric Pennycoff’s second feature, after 2018’s SADISTIC INTENTIONS, reunites its (since-married) stars Jeremy Gardner and Taylor Zaudtke for a suitably cynical and darkly amusing Christmas-set tale of religious hypocrisy and mania.
It has a career-best performance from Graham Skipper as a celibate priest, first seen preaching at length about gifts in all their forms and the notion of bringing people face to face with God by helping them…all set to sarcastically tinkly sentimental music before a cutaway reveals a miniscule number of people in his congregation. The appearance of the film’s title, white on garish red to a shrieking soundtrack, gives a hint of the anarchy to come.
Skipper is struggling to sustain interest in his physical church or its accompanying social media posts (#compassion / #sundaysquad) while living in his late mother’s house (complete with horrifying over-sized portrait) and helping out hard-drinking, horny, down-on-his-luck loser Gardner. He ends up, thanks to Gardner’s on-off girlfriend (Zaudtke) with two freeloaders for the price of one – and a “Never Have I Ever” drinking game takes him to the point of no return and an unconventional “Christmas miracle”.
Gardner, likening the Old Testament to “gangsta shit”, is typically fun as the stoner / alcoholic whose recollections of a surprising threesome (“a little more Sodom than Gomorrah”) helps tip Skinner over the edge in the final act. There are echoes of Paul Schrader’s TAXI DRIVER and FIRST REFORMER and Skinner effectively tracks the decline of a hitherto devoted man facing the constant frustration of his religious “message” getting lost and the pressure of living with someone whom he has caught in vigorous mid-wank. This almost three-handed, small-scale piece pays off with a simultaneously harrowing and hilarious climax, with at least one laugh out loud line (“I snorted Mama!”) and suitably ironic use of festive faithful “Away in a Manger”.
Review by Steven West