Black Mold (2023) Review
Black Mold opens with the camera gliding down a suburban street like a kid on a bicycle, it turns into a driveway and the into a house whose front door helpfully opens for us. Then the peaceful imagery is shattered by a child running screaming from something on the floor.
And with that Brooke (Agnea Albright, Scarecrow Gone Wild, True Detective) wakes up in the back of CJ’s (Caito Aase, Revealer, 2 in the Bush: A Love Story) ancient SUV with Tanner (Andrew Bailes, No Resolution, Cash Patients Only) asking her if she’s OK.
Brooke and Tanner are urban explorers and photographers, CJ drops them off and picks them up to avoid a parked vehicle giving their presence away. That’s great when they’re poking through abandoned trailer parks, but they’ve got a bigger target in their sites today, an abandoned government facility with a very mysterious history.
I hear you groaning, but stay with me, this isn’t another supersoldier experiment gone wrong film. Writer/director John Pata who has directed shorts such as Better Off Undead, co-directed the feature, Dead Weight, and has edited genre films like The Stylist and Gags the Clown, has something much different in store.
Once inside the facility they do discover a very disturbed homeless man (Jeremy Holm, The Block Island Sound, House of Cards) who takes them captive. But the real danger is related to a fallen sign they stepped over in the hall warning of microbial danger, the black mold of the title. As it gets into their systems it preys on their fears, which in Brooke’s case stem from her father’s suicide.
None of this should come as a surprise as Pata lays the foreshadowing on a bit too heavily. Much of Brooke and Tanner’s conversation in the first buildings they photograph revolve around hidden and irrational fears. CJ makes a comment about being happy not to be going into buildings full of mold that could mess with her mind or body which draws a retort about hallucinogens. Almost all of the dialogue in Black Mold’s first act is a signpost to where the plot is heading.
Eventually it becomes clear that for whatever reason CJ isn’t coming back for them and the vagrant’s resemblance to Brooke’s father (Holm in a dual role), at one point he even refers to her by the same nickname her father did, starts to set her mind off. That’s when Black Mold turns into an intense story about the horrors that lurk within our own minds.
Tanner’s hallucinations may be what we think of as horror, his fear is scarecrows inspired by watching Dark Night of the Scarecrow as a child. But it’s Brooke’s memories and unexplained guilt over her father’s death that are the most intense, complete with some effective makeup. The fact that we don’t know why her sister blames her, from what little we know he had his own issues, or why she accepts that blame adds to the confusion she, and through her the viewer, feel.
Pata gets excellent performances out of all three leads as the characters are forced to face their fear, grief and eventually rage. Thankfully everyone resists the urge to dial it up to eleven and go all Nicolas Cage on the script, especially in the last few minutes when their emotions become explosive ahead of a fittingly ambiguous ending.
Two others who deserve a lot of credit are cinematographer Robert Patrick Stern (The Rake, Holiday Heist) and the building they shot in. It looks so authentically run down you can almost smell the rot and mold as well as feel the bugs crawling on you. Stern brings out the ominous atmosphere of decay and turns it into the film’s ultimate antagonist.
Some viewers will be disappointed that Black Mold isn’t an updated Attack of the Mushroom People, a remake I’m surprised we haven’t gotten actually. But for the rest this is an intense piece of psychological horror that should stick with you for a while.
Black Mold is available on Tubi, once again showing that while they can’t seem to commission a good “Tubi Original” they can occasionally pick up the rights to an excellent one.