With an intriguing premise, solid scares, and impressive visuals, “Black Mold” blends psychological and supernatural horror to great effect.
Right out of the gate, Black Mold commands your attention and showcases the technical style and expertise of writer-director John Pata and his crew.
A moody and chilling opening features a gorgeous tracking shot down a quiet suburban neighborhood and through the front door of a home where we meet a young Brooke, who has just discovered the lifeless body of her father (an apparent suicide), screaming and crying in horror.
Quick cut to adult Brooke (Agnes Albright) in the back seat of a car, jolted out of a nightmare memory of her past.
Now an accomplished photographer, she and her colleague Tanner (Andrew Bailes) are traveling to photograph some abandoned buildings for their portfolios.
While exploring places they don’t have permission to be at, they’ve brought along a getaway driver, CJ (Caito Aase), whom they instruct to leave the premise while they shoot, returning at a designated time to pick them up. This is to ensure they are as inconspicuous as possible.
The film moves at a leisurely place for the first 20 minutes, but that’s not a criticism.
Pata uses that time wisely to develop his two core characters and establish their believable friendship and natural chemistry. There’s also some great dialogue about the nature of fears and phobias, foreshadowing the escalating horror as the film progresses.
Pata also takes time to lovingly showcase the other star of the film, his spectacular locations, shot in old homes across Southern Illinois.
Blending the mundane and the profound, he creates an eerie backdrop for a character whose buried memories still cast a long shadow, seeping out of the walls she’s built to contain the grief and guilt.
The time spent exploring these dilapidated locations before arriving at our primary destination is captivating.
Inspired by Pata’s real love for photographing abandoned structures, these long-forgotten places serve as both extraordinary visual set pieces and a potent metaphor for residual psychological hauntings.
After their initial explorations, Brooke confesses that she’s been selected for a prestigious showcase and grant for her work, and she needs to secure some show-stopping shots from a holy grail destination.
Brooke suggests they visit a former military testing site with a mysterious history.
Upon arrival at Franklin Hill — and following some foreboding talk about the potentially toxic mold sure to have infested the structure that’s been abandoned for decades — Brooke and Tanner send CJ away for several hours. This gives them ample time to explore the sprawling compound while leaving them isolated and stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Even before things start to deteriorate significantly, you’ll likely be enthralled and filled with apprehensive dread on the strength of the setting alone.
There’s a moment at the start of their investigation when Brooke encounters an ominous message etched into a wall, and it’s chilling. Whether it’s real or not becomes open to interpretation.
As the pair make their way to the second floor of the building, they discover evidence that someone has been squatting there. They also start to show signs of being physically and mentally affected by the moldy air.
On their way to head out of the main building to get some fresh air and explore the adjacent cells, they’re confronted by an aggressive, paranoid squatter (Jeremy Holm), who seems convinced the two are there to cause him harm.
After a desperate attempt to pacify the man while hiding behind a locked door, it seems like cooler heads might prevail. But he instead rushes them and knocks them out the minute they let down their guard.
While unconscious, Brooke has another nightmare, a terrifyingly altered memory of her father’s funeral, which suggests she’s harboring intense guilt as well as grief.
To further amplify the creepy vibes, the squatter bears an uncanny resemblance to Brooke’s deceased father. He even seems to know the nickname her dad gave her as a little girl.
She finds herself strangely drawn to the mysterious man, hoping he can give her some closure. Her desire to talk to him causes friction between her and the increasingly ill and untethered Tanner.
The ever-present specter of hallucinogenic black mold in the building means the capacity for clear and level-headed thinking is likely diminished.
This offers Pata a clever way to mitigate the audience’s frustration with characters who consistently make questionable choices — a typically groan-inducing horror trope necessitated by the need to put characters in peril.
It’s impossible for the characters and for us, the viewers, to know what’s real and what’s imagined, leaving us disoriented and in a constant state of unease.
At about the one-hour mark, things become significantly more horror-tinged.
It’s apparent CJ is not coming to rescue them, and nightfall has arrived. Frustrated by Brooke’s fascination with their attacker, he leaves to explore the outer cells on his own.
There, he’s confronted by his deepest fears (I won’t ruin the fun for you, but it’s deeply unnerving) and the genuine possibility that he might be losing his mind.
The final half-hour is jaw-dropping — intense and terrifying, culminating in an ambiguous mind f*ck of an ending that rewards your patience handsomely.
Ultimately, like another gem out of Panic Fest, Mother May I?, Black Mold is a film that examines the effect of childhood trauma and repressed memories.
The titular mold is a metaphor for toxic thoughts that consume a person’s mind and destroy the foundation of their self-image and sanity.
But you don’t have to appreciate the deeper subtext to enjoy the thrills and terror of this haunted hellscape.
Even without the rich and resonant themes running throughout the lean 90-minute descent into madness, Black Mold works perfectly well as a straightforward, highly effective spook fest.
However, it is a compelling but slow build toward the real emphasis on traditional horror, so be prepared for some patience and plan to watch while fully alert and distraction-free.
The performances are strong, and the characters are well-written and relatable.
Pata demonstrates tremendous technical skill, and his script is intriguing, darkly beautiful, and delivers enough solid scares to keep horror fans happy.