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[Panic Fest Review] BLACK MOLD is a Study of Fear and the Decaying Mind

Agnes Albright in BLACK MOLD (2023), directed by John Pata - Panic Fest 2023.
Courtesy of Head Trauma Productions

Like a decaying body in a rural field, the abandoned buildings scattered across the country decay, rot, and decompose, eaten away by bacteria and fungi. In his dramatic horror thriller Black Mold, writer and director John Pata employs this setting to explore trauma and fear. Pata doesn’t rely on jump scares, instead lulling the audience into a false sense of security before using the fear of his characters to frighten us.

While exploring a decrepit and abandoned facility to capture photographs for an upcoming exhibition, Brooke Konrad (Agnes Albright) and Tanner Behlman (Andrew Bailes) experience the delusionary effects of hazardous materials in the air believed to be black mold. The microfungus agitates their allergies and causes intense hallucinations, causing acute fear responses. In reality, in rare cases, black mold may cause infections, but it doesn’t produce vivid hallucinations. While the film explores Brooke’s traumatic past, the duo’s fear and anxiety are the real focal point of the story.

We are immediately drawn into the narrative thanks to the captivating cinematography of Robert Patrick Stern. The film opens with a gorgeous tracking shot down a suburban street that comes to the front door of a picturesque home. As a young girl sobs, we enter the house, cleverly riddled with decay. Its paint is peeling, and the walls are stained, foreshadowing the story to come, before entering a brightly lit room with a man slumped over and blood staining the wall before Stern closes in on the girl’s face. She lets out a howling scream into the camera, right into our faces, and then Brooke awakens, introducing us to the dynamics of her character and what haunts her.

Suppose there is an expectation of a preternatural encounter. In that case, it is more likely that one will be perceived. Tanner invites this acute terror with his musings about the justification of our fears. He delivers an interesting hypothesis about fear as he and Brooke explore a rural abandoned house. “I don’t know why they’re called irrational fears. I have to imagine that most people have a reason to be afraid of whatever it is that scares them, even if that fear is foolish. Perhaps, unwarranted. Something at some point must have happened to influence it. Thus, making it rational. Not irrational.” What is fear but an unpleasant emotion alerting us to the threat of danger? It's a fantastic setup for audiences.

When Brooke and Tanner encounter an ostensibly schizophrenic vagrant (Jeremy Holm) who aggressively attacks them, fearing for his own safety, things begin to unravel. As night falls and the black mold spores infect their bodies, their fear responses intensify. When the vagrant refers to Brooke as Little Star — the pet name her father called her — this triggers her traumatic memories and her guilt over her father’s suicide.

While we explore Brooke’s deeply rooted pain through beautifully framed flashbacks of her father’s death, Tanner is the film’s most memorable character, sometimes playing the antagonist through his crushing anxiety and behavior. He becomes increasingly aggressive toward the film’s shocking final act. Bailes plays this wonderfully and providing comedic relief and portraying Tanner as a character who is quick to scare and dangerously temperamental. However, Holm’s performance in his duel roles is stunning. He’s terrifying and sympathetic, leaving audiences constantly questioning the vagrant’s motives and adding to our sense of distorted reality.

Black Mold is a horrifying journey through fear, self-loathing, and guilt backed by incredible performances. Pata cleverly correlates distrust, fear, and the decay of a maddening mind to the abandoned and decrepit buildings that frighten many of us. There is something uniquely ominous about a desolate and forgotten space. Like Brooke, they seem haunted by fractured memories that never fade.



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