Signal Horizon

See Beyond

{Panic Fest 2023} Black Mold

I was exposed to John Pata through his editing and writing work on the 2018 release Gags the Clown. Gags was one of a number of red balloon clown-oriented horror movies that came out in and around 2019. It was one of, if not my favorite, of that subgenre. When I caught it at Panic Fest 2020, I turned to my podcast cohost, and we both discussed how much we liked the atmosphere and cosmic dread that the movie seemed to tap into. Pata’s newest film Black Mold has that same creepy atmosphere, but this time it is presented in a much more traditional haunted house format. While it doesn’t quite have the mystery and weirdness of the first feature, it is still a ton of fun to watch. From the tremendous opening tracking shot to an ending full of ambiguity, Black Mold is a strong sophomore (technically third) feature from Pata and crew.

The official synopsis for the movie immediately highlights what works so well for the film. Namely, its creepy locations. The story centers on photographers Brooke Konrad (Agnes Albright) and Tanner Behlman (Andrew Bailes) as they travel to rural, abandoned buildings to capture the inherent beauty of long-forgotten locations, but far from forgotten are the traumatic memories that surface in Brooke when they meet The Man Upstairs, an unsuspecting squatter (Jeremy Holm). As tensions and uncertainties arise, Brooke must determine if this mysterious stranger will provide her the closure she so desperately seeks or let the fears of the past consume her.

Black Mold starts by introducing us to the two main characters. Brooke Conrad (Agnes Albright) is a driven young photographer yearning to make a name for herself by documenting sad, but spooky dilapidated buildings. Her photographer buddy Tanner (Andrew Bailes) is mostly along for the ride. The casting choices here are interesting, and both performers make big choices about how their characters look and feel. Perhaps most important are the motivations behind Albright’s choices. She is entirely believable as an artist who struggles with reconciling some trauma from her past. Both photographers present as young adults, I think. However, they are young enough acting and looking that I kept waiting for one of them to mention a class assignment that could offer a reason for the exploration into the old building. While that doesn’t manifest, the audience’s confusion doesn’t last long as the plot settles in and spooky stuff starts to happen. As the actor’s mental state deteriorates, so does their physical shape as the titular black mold starts to wreak havoc on their health.

The real star of this film is the location. From the first minute, the facility looks and feels menacing. If foreboding existed as a building, it would be where our stars find themselves. As things go from bad to worse, I found myself criticizing their behavior. The age-old question of why they don’t leave early goes begging, and we are left with characters who make questionable decisions from the get-go. I tacked these poor choices up to the insipid mold as it starts to take over their minds. Once the actors try to leave, things take a dark twist as we meet lots of different bugaboos, including a gang of murderous scarecrows. The scarecrows are terrifying and threatening and seem to be a representation of Tanner’s worst fears.

Meanwhile, Brooke keeps meeting different versions of her dead father (played by Jeremy Holm, who is having an absolute blast in this role. Keep an eye out for him in Brooklyn 45, another feature screening at Panic Fest). The effects design with Holm are clever and harken back to an earlier age of horror films where makeup and prosthetics played a larger role. The scenes that feature Holm as Brooke’s dad are absolutely panic-inducing.

Any conversation surrounding the look of the characters would be remiss if they didn’t mention the hairstylist on set who makes everyone look perfectly coifed but entirely messy. Jill Gevargizian also acted as producer on this film. She and Pata both produced her feature The Stylist, which has its own stellar reputation.

The building, as its own character, oozes into every scene. Early on, graffiti on the wall asks, “Have you forgotten the face of your father?” That is a deeply messed up thing to ask someone. Like terrifyingly so. There will come a time when we will forget what our parents looked like. Maybe even our children’s faces. Sad and terrifying, this question gets to the heart of the film. Will we forget what has happened to us in the past, or are we doomed to be haunted by the memories of those past events until we repeat them or die? It is a bleak question with an even bleaker answer. Black Mold manages to swim in that darkness while still maintaining a level of fun that can often be lost in the heaviness of the subject matter.

Black Mold is a tight 3-4 person show. With its mostly one location, it could easily be adapted for the stage. My little dark theatre-loving heart would love to see a two-act play that examines how much of our childhood trauma exists only in our heads. It is one more reason why you need to check out Black Mold as soon as you can.