Leech (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (13th January 2023).
The Film

The Leech (Eric Pennycoff, 2022)

A dark parody of the Christmas story, The Leech is the second feature film by writer-director Eric Pennycoff. Pennycoff’s first feature was 2018’s Sadistic Intentions, and The Leech shares some of its minimal cast (Jeremy Gardner and Taylor Zaudtke) with that picture; the production of Sadistic Intentions followed the inclusion of Pennycoff’s short, “M is for Mariachi,” in the anthology ABCs of Death 2.5 (2016).

The Leech takes place during the Christmas period. Devoted priest Father David (Graham Skipper) takes in homeless Terry (Jeremy Gardner); soon Terry has also moved his pregnant girlfriend, Lexi (Taylor Zaudtke), into Father David’s home. Terry and Lexi’s presence begins to grate on Father David and his mentee, Rigo (Rigo Garay), a former addict who now spends his time recording religious raps; eventually, the relationship between the three evolves, with Terry and Lexi encouraging Father David to drink copious amounts of alcohol and test the limits of his priestly vows. The outcome is disastrous.

The Leech offers a fusion of black comedy and psychological horror, with a strong “indie” film sensibility. Pennycoff’s naturalistic approach to capturing dialogue, the focus on interpersonal relationships, the employment of “stoner” humour, and the “loose” aesthetic of the picture all suggest The Leech may be approached as an example of “mumblegore” – that curious mixture of horror with the DIY, lo-fi indie filmmaking spirit of “mumblecore.”

The Leech opens with Father David delivering a sermon in his church, to a miniscule congregation, that focuses on the importance of empathy and charitable acts. “When we help others, we bring them face to face with God,” Father David asserts, “I want each of you to ask yourselves, how am I bringing others face to face with God?” In The Leech, Father David’s act of Christian charity leads to his undoing; his involvement with Terry and Lexi forces Father David to confront the aspects of himself that he has repressed, including his sexuality. When David casually reminds Terry that, as a priest, he is celibate, Terry responds (with ignorance that may or may not be feigned), “Oh, cool. So you got both parts?” Later on, the film suggests that in a drunken stupor, David may have fucked both Terry and Lexi; David, it seems, is a man who has throughout his life been in a struggle with his sexuality, and this is pulled to the foreground by his encounters with the sexually open, experimental Terry and Lexi.

Though Father David behaves charitably towards Terry and Lexi, he is perhaps guilty of underestimating the couple, of patronising them – and the film’s audience is too. David sees Terry and Lexi as essentially animalistic, driven by primal impulses: chiefly, those of food, drink, and sex. These are the impulses that David has attempted to position himself above and beyond. Much of the film is experienced by the audience through the eyes of Father David: perhaps because the film is so heavily focalised through this character, for us Terry and Lexi are in the film’s early sequences stripped of intellectual interiority, and as the narrative progresses they develop contrary to the stereotype David (and the audience) initially ascribes to them – that they are ignorant “white trash.” We gradually become aware that they may – or may not – be ensnaring Father David within a very tightly-woven trap, and in doing so highlighting his hypocrisies.

Terry’s dialogue, in particular, skirts a fine line between absolute ignorance and utter, omniscient knowing: “I thought all you priests were big boozers,” Terry tells Father David early in the film, after Father David has refused a drink and told Terry that he is teetotal. This moment prefigures a later scene in which Terry and Lexi involve Father David in a drinking game, the priest knocking back (and holding down) the hard booze in a manner that suggests he has escaped into the priesthood from a previous drinking problem.

The Leech
offers a dark inversion of the story of Christ’s birth, with Terry and Lexi functioning as parodies of Joseph and Mary: Terry and Lexi may be full of vice and excess, but Lexi’s pregnancy seems to be a mystery. The conception may not be immaculate, but it is certainly regarded as enigmatic. Terry and Lexi’s arrival at Father David’s house represents a reckoning for the priest, much as the birth of Christ represented a reckoning for the divisive, authoritarian climate into which He was born. “We ain’t tryin’ to leech,” Terry insists as he and Lexi begin to take advantage of David; this finds an echoing response later when David asserts desperately, “I want my home back!” David’s home – both literally and symbolically – will, we come to understand, never quite be the same again.


Filling approximately 24Gb of space on its Blu-ray disc, Arrow’s presentation of The Leech is in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. (As the film was shot digitally, it was presumably cropped in post to emulate the ‘scope ratio.) The film runs for 82:11 mins. Using the AVC codec, the film is presented on the disc in 1080p.

Captured digitally and in colour, The Leech’s presentation on this disc is excellent. The film makes strong use of primary coloured lighting schemes, and this is articulated very pleasingly on Arrow’s Blu-ray release – with these primary hues coming across in a consistent manner, and with depth. The photography is often dark and dingy, but thankfully contrast levels in this presentation are very pleasing, with deep and rich blacks, defined midtones, and balanced highlights. Detail is very strong, fine detail present throughout the film; the encode to disc presents no problems, with no problematic digital artifacting appearing in the image.

NB. Some full-sized screengrabs from the disc are included at the bottom of this review. Please click these to enlarge them.


There are two audio options: a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, and a LPCM 2.0 stereo track. Both of these audio tracks are fine, with clear dialogue and excellent range. The LPCM track seems a little more “beefy” and has greater depth, but the DTS-HD track is no slouch either. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are provided, and these are easy to read and accurate in transcribing the film’s dialogue.


The disc includes the following:
- Optional introductions by writer-director Eric Pennycoff (0:10) and actor Graham Skipper (0:12).

- Director and Producer Commentary. In this commentary track, Pennycoff speaks alongside the film’s producer, Scott Smith. The pair discuss the genesis and production of The Leech, which was a project that evolved out of the “lockdowns” that ensued in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. They talk about how the film was made with minimal cast and crew, reflecting on the logistics involved in this and sourcing locations for the picture. There’s discussion of technical aspects of the production too, with consideration given as to how some of the film’s visual effects were achieved and what the filmmakers were hoping to articulate through the lighting and photography. It’s a strong commentary track, with plentiful insight into the trials and tribulations involved in getting an independently-made film such as this onto the screen.

- Chattanooga Live Commentary with Cast and Director. This is a commentary track recorded “live” at the Chattanooga Film Festival. (The participants aren’t together, but rather speaking to one another via online videocall; this results in some digital audio glitches which may grate on people with sensitive hearing.) A light-hearted track, it features Pennycoff, Jeremy Gardner, Taylor Zaudtke, and Graham Skipper. The participants speak in good humour, and offer some entertaining anecdotes from the production – including the fact that the filmmakers misled a group of nuns into thinking they were making a pro-faith documentary. The cast members talk about how they approached their performances, and reflect on the characters they play.

- Chattanooga Q&A with Cast and Director (33:59). Pennycoff and the cast (Gardner, Zaudtke, and Skipper) speak about The Leech at the 2022 Chattanooga Film Festival. The contributors offer comments “virtually,” via an online video call. Audio can be a little distorted at times, with an echo that people with mild hearing difficulties may find makes the comments difficult to process. Pennycoff describes the film as a “pandemic movie” made with minimal cast and crew (four cast members, and approximately ten crew members). The film originated in some research Pennycoff conducted regarding “squatter’s rights,” with the story evolving from a “legal thriller” into the psychological horror film that The Leech became. A key point of reference for Pennycoff was the neo-noir picture Pacific Heights. There’s some insight into the production and the processes involved in getting an indie picture like this to the screen, though this feature’s true value lies in the warmth the contributors display towards both the project and one another, and the light-hearted anecdotes they deliver about the production.

- “Parasites in the Oven, Bun in the Oven: American Interiors in Pennycoff’s The Leech” (25:41). This is a video essay recorded by critic Anton Bitel for this release from Arrow. The video essay considers The Leech within the context of Pennycoff’s career to this date (the short “The Pod,” Pennycoff’s segment from ABCs of Death 2.5, and the director’s two feature films). Bitel foregrounds Pennycoff’s focus on music within his films – from the heavy metal of Sadistic Intentions to the religious rap being recorded by Rigo in The Leech. Bitel also highlights the lineage of the film’s pivotal chicken dinner scene within when he argues is a paradigm of American independent horror cinema: the use of cooked chicken within scenes that subvert and parody themes of family unity. (Bitel highlights this as a motif that can be found in Eraserhead and House, among other films.)

- “The Voice of Reason” (14:23). Pennycoff and Graham Skipper are interviewed here. They discuss their hopes for the film. (Pennycoff dryly suggests viewers should treat the film as a drinking game.) Pennycoff talks about his approach to directing the actors, and the contrasts between the performances of Skipper (as a trained theatrical actor) and the other cast members.

- Frightfest Introduction and Q&A (18:43). This is a recording of the filmmaker introduction and Q&A (with Pennycoff and Skipper) from when The Leech was screened at Frightfest in August 2022. Pennycoff and Skipper field questions from the audience, and discuss their responses to the completed film. They discuss the theme of religious horror, and talk at some length about William Peter Blatty (who Pennycoff describes as “an opening wound of an artist”) and The Exorcist. They also talk about the logistics of making a feature during the Covid pandemic.

- “The Making of The Leech” (14:37). Shot-on-video footage from the production is presented here, in 4:3. This footage, which appears to be from a standard definition camcorder, includes preparation and capturing of specific scenes from the film, offering insight into Pennycoff’s approach to directing his actors and the preparation of some of the film’s SFX work.

- Rigo’s Music Video (1:20). This is a wonderful little feature: a music video for the religious rap track Rigo records in the film.

- Early Short Films: Included is “Unfortunate” (10:24), a black-and-white short featuring a couple walking through the woods, the man leading his girlfriend to a “surprise”; “The Pod” (11:03), a SF short about a space traveller in a cramped capsule traveling through interstellar space, his journey interrupted by flashbacks and a malfunctioning spacecraft; and “Phase II” (4:14), an almost abstract assembly of footage (tattoos, wounds) and the ramblings of a religious monomaniac prophesising the apocalypse.

- Trailer (1:12).


The Leech is a fascinating film, with many layers beneath its surface. The jauntily comic tone gradually evolves into something seething and sinister, in the manner of the best American independent horror films of the past. (Watching The Leech and considering the film’s gradual stripping away of society’s hypocrisies, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Brian Yuzna’s superb Society, in particular.) Pennycoff’s approach to the material, and adoption of horror traits, displays the superficial naivete of Terry; but bubbling beneath the surface is a subversive sense of mischief and utter clarity of vision and purpose. What are the limits of Christian hospitality and acceptance, the film seems to ask, and in a toxic climate, do hospitality, acceptance, and tolerance have a place? May privileging these values simply lead us to self-annihilation?

I watched The Leech a few weeks before writing this review, because I had to mull the picture over and reflect on it carefully. It’s not a stretch to say that because of the questions it raises, The Leech provoked something of an existential reckoning for myself, and is likely to do the same for other viewers. It’s an excellent film, and marks Pennycoff as a talent to watch carefully.

Arrow Video’s Blu-ray release of The Leech contains an excellent presentation of the film that is supported by some strong contextual material (with the small caveat that there is some significant overlap/repetition across the various interviews and commentaries assembled here). Highly recommended for fans of US indie horror films.

Please click the screengrabs below to enlarge them.


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