Panic Fest 2023: Black Mold has indie heart and big-budget chops
This story is part of our coverage of Panic Fest 2023. Read more from our film team here.
There’s a lot going on under the surface in Black Mold, as writer-director John Pata made clear in his Q&A following the film’s premiere at Panic Fest. The story of two photographers encountering hallucinatory hauntings in an abandoned building with a shady past life (possibly the site of government experiments, possibly something else entirely) is a deeply personal work that connects to Pata’s own interests and journey with trauma and mental health.
The film is the product of a very cold shoot in central Illinois, partly overseen by KC’s own Jill Gevargizian, and appears to be a labor of love on the part of all involved. Black Mold has a few issues (about half the dialogue could stand to be cut), but for the most part, it’s an impressive second feature for Pata that makes excellent use of practical effects and puts his considerable skills as an editor on full display.
Brooke (Agnes Albright) and Tanner (Andrew Bailes) are art photographers on a road trip to document abandoned buildings and houses in rural Illinois. Their friend CJ (Caito Aase) is playing chauffeur, dropping them off and circling back around so nobody will be clued into their presence. Brooke has no issues with breaking in and looking around. The asthmatic, nervous Tanner is a little less certain.
While exploring a sprawling haunted building, Brooke and Tanner run into a homeless man (Jeremy Holm) who bears a striking resemblance to Brooke’s dead dad. The man seems to think Brooke and Tanner have it in for him somehow and warns them not to get caught in the building after dark. Of course, their ride doesn’t show up, leaving our two shutterbugs stuck in the middle of nowhere as the moon rises and some unnamed malevolent force starts playing tricks on their minds.
Pata’s script tends to tell rather than show, which slows down Black Mold’s momentum, especially in the early stages. However, once Brooke and Tanner run into their shady new squatter friend, things take off in earnest with Evil Dead-esque aplomb. Holm, the most recognizable cast member from his roles on Mr. Robot and House of Cards, in addition to his starring role in The Ranger, leans hard into his double role as “the man upstairs” and as Brooke’s dad in nightmarish flashbacks and hallucinations. Bailes, seemingly a proud graduate of the Leland Orser School of Panicky Acting, is the standout of the ensemble, going from sly and sarcastic to increasingly jittery to delightfully squirrely.
Also noteworthy are the film’s effects, which are as top-notch as any studio horror film you could care to name. A hallucinatory flashback at Brooke’s father’s funeral veers delightfully into Raimi territory while maintaining the scene’s pathos. Another moment involving Tanner’s deep-seated fear of scarecrows provides classic Halloween-inflected imagery without looking stilted or cheap. The same goes for a late-stage werewolf transformation that plays like gangbusters.
A large reason those scenes work so well is Pata’s innate instinct for editing, which is especially apparent during the action scenes. Pata cuts expertly between his characters’ individual hallucinations and what other characters in the scene see without losing an ounce of momentum or danger. These moments are taut, fun, and wildly unpredictable, with a genuinely impressive ability to communicate each character’s given mental state and the threat that state poses to the other people in the room.
You hesitate to say a movie has “heart” in the circumstances like this in case it sounds ineffectual. However, in this case, it’s an accurate term. The craft on display in Black Mold belies intense care for the project on behalf of everyone involved, even if certain parts don’t work as well as others. Pata and his team have gobs of passion and potential that are worth paying attention to and following. It’s clear Pata’s only going to keep growing and improving from here and considering how much skill he’s already got, that’s saying a lot.