You likely wouldn’t know this about me, probably because I’ve never said it. I have some major beef with religious horror as a subgenre. It usually feels contrived and relies heavily on prosperity gospel as a fear tactic. Normally, I would not have picked a movie like Leech (2023) up.
However, I am a Christmas horror fan, so let me tell you why this movie is a rare exception.
Simply because it was out of pocket as hell.
Directed by (Eric Pennycoff) this movie is about young priest David (Graham Skipper) who decides to take in a “lost soul,” Terry (Jermy Gardner) after his girlfriend seemingly abandons him. Opening up his home and heart, David feels elated at the prospect of a potential convert. Not so long after Terry’s arrival, his girlfriend Lexi (Taylor Zaudrke) finds her way to David’s doorstep asking for the same slice of generosity. David hesitantly agrees, but the line between hospitality and exploration is one the priest isn’t so keen on acknowledging. At least, not at first.
Boundaries and Transactions
The plot in its bare bones is a game of boundaries and transactions.
There will never be a religious horror dynamic that isn’t set up upon these two ideals. First, there is the relationship between the holy man and the mere man. Right off the bat, the transactional nature of religious-based help is laid out plainly.
David doesn’t necessarily want to take in Terry or Lexi. This is made clear the first night they are with him, when he writes in his personal blog, “this is what God’s people are called to do.” He even outright reminds them multiple times that the will of God is his reason for being so hospitable and their ideal repayment in his eyes, is conversion. religious therapy, sobriety, and modest clothing become some of the base requirements of their new life under his care.
He isn’t the only one that has to make sacrifices though. Though, admittedly, minimal coaxing he is subdued into drunken nights full of moral ambiguity, threesomes, and confessions. All to gain favor with his new projects.
You could tell that the writers had some actual experience with the ins and outs of church life. Including the pressure, guilt, and shame that come free of charge with your devotion.
Furthering into just how dangerous these parallels can be, the unyielding desire to “dirty” the pure that started as a subplot, becomes the catalyst for the climax. Terry and Lexi spend a solid chunk of the movie trying to find threads within David to unravel the Godly persona he’s presented the world with. David spends most of the movie trying to convince himself and others that he is, in fact, above secular influence.
Spoiler, David does not succeed.
Back to the plot
Leech shows the danger of absolute conversion in its beginning phases. Especially when being nurtured by someone with muddled intentions. Terry expresses his willingness to devote himself to God at a speed David wasn’t prepared for. Unfortunately for everyone involved he quickly goes full throttle into the old testament.
Lexi gets more of the brute end of this than anyone. As a woman, a pregnant woman no less, she is subjected to an unruly amount of building misogyny. Starting subtly with throw-away comments made about women’s sin “beginning in the garden of Eden,” to required modest clothing and forced birth.
She is the antithesis of why a majority of desperate people would rather suffer than fall at the mercy of religious leaders. In the beginning David is gracious with his pushback against her want for abortion. He uses key religious phrases like, “this is God’s gift to you,” and, “the life inside of you is a miracle,” he goes as far as to tell her the baby could be the push she needs to pull
herself out of homelessness.
I want to mention that the pacing of Leech is phenomenal. The plot structure was set up to be tense with a slow build over time, despite ending explosively.
Aside from that, the characters weren’t just faces. Everyone had a moment to showcase the structure of their personalities giving pertinent examples of their intentions, reasonings, and resolve. We get details into their past, sex life, and secret desires in throw-away comments and subtle gestures. This is a feat that isn’t easily accomplished in an hour.
From the onslaught, Lexi and Terry seem, albeit pushy, but mostly just desperate for shelter. David on the other hand is in need of a congregation. With no one to proselytize to he is just as lost as the couple and from all sides they see a sort of salvation in each other.
Ick Value and Personal Testimony
From someone who also had strong roots in religion growing up, it was funny to see some of the elements they chose to include. Ex. Rico, the rapper/pianist, (for the lord), and the #sundaysquad and #blessed slang terms used in David’s personal blog. Personally, I think it illustrates well the disconnect between old religion’s continuous strive to win favor with a generation that has little interest in conformity, or the rigidity of spirituality.
Leech also takes on a lot of heavy topics, some of which I found particularly hard to reason with. The aforementioned, anti-abortion rhetoric and misogyny, but also, religious pedophilia, corporal or old testament-like punishments, classism and racism were a few that came up.
These are not uncommon themes and truthfully, if none of them were mentioned I’d have considered the movie unrealistic. That being said, it did come across as a forced amalgamation of religions’ worst qualities for ick value at times.
In the end, it gave you really nothing to root for, but is that a bad thing?
When done well, this can be a very useful plot device. On the one hand, I didn’t care enough about anyone to not enjoy the absolute shit show that erupted in the climax. It was psychedelic, bloody, and jaw-dropping. On the other hand, the last scene before the credits held little resolve for me, because I didn’t find anything to really root for. Lexi walked away exactly where she
began. Pregnant, alone, but with significantly more trauma.
In conclusion, I mostly liked the movie despite the fact that religious horror is typically outside of my range. It was really well made cinematically, it depicted quite realistic relationship dynamics and concluded with a bang. Literally.
Leech is by Arrow Video, purveyors of fine horror cinema. Be sure to also check out their 4K restoration of Profondo Rosso (1975).