Black Mold

Black Mold (2023)

Black Mold had its international première on Fri 25th Aug at FrightFest

Black Mold opens with a long single shot. Cinematographer Robert Patrick Stern’s camera cranes down through a tree’s leaves to three kids cycling in the street, a man mowing his lawn, a woman getting letters from her mailbox, people walking and greeting each other – in short, a picture of sunny middle-class suburbia. Yet then the camera continues, to a house at the end of a cul de sac, through its front door (which mysteriously opens) to an interior of peeling wallpaper and black mold, and finally to a man slumped on a chair, his brain spattered over the wall behind him, and his young, distraught daughter (Maisie Merlock) screaming into the camera. A match cut takes us to the same woman, 15 years later, waking with a start on the back seat of a car. Brooke Konrad (Agnes Albright) may now be an adult, but that primal scene of her father’s suicide has never left her, festering in her mind as a nightmare of rot, anguish and guilt.

Yet Brooke has found a way to process all that trauma and turn it into art. Her specialty is a sort of hauntology. She and her fellow photographer Tanner Behlman (Andrew Bailes) illegally enter abandoned properties – with their friend CJ Mueller (Caito Aase) ferrying them around in her car – and capture on film the neglect within. It is a way of conjuring what once was from the ruins left behind, peeling back the layers of dirt and detritus for any signs or stains of life. Often, though, the only life to be found is the ubiquitous mold which triggers Tanner’s allergies and associated headaches, and which might be having other effects on them too. “Who knows what that crap does to your brain?”, as CJ puts it, “You might start seeing shit.”

It seems clear that Brooke is reconstructing refracted, shattered images of her own broken home, in what are snapshots of devastation and loss – and whatever weird psychic energy her photographer’s eye grasps in all these empty, haunted spaces is clearly resonating with her audience. After all, though Brooke has lived in Milwaukee for only a year, and shoots in exactly the same places as Tanner, it is her work alone which is earning exhibitions and grants. And now she has located the holy grail: Franklin Hill, a building complex left derelict for decades. “I’ve heard a lot of theories over the years,” Brooke says of it, “but I’ve never actually met anyone who’s been there”, adding, “To the best of my knowledge it’s got some kind of government connection or something.”  

This site, surrounded by rumour and myth, will become the staging ground for all Brooke and Tanner’s most deep-seated nightmares. They may fail to see – as we do not – the fallen sign warning of ‘microbial hazard’ in the premises, but as the minutes tick by, the pair is evidently already beginning to succumb to something in the air which is not just making them cough and giving them headaches, but also drawing out their anxiety and aggression. The only other person there – a scruffy, heavily bearded man (Jeremy Holm) who appears to have been squatting upstairs for some time – is much further gone in his unhinged paranoia and confusion, although also somewhat more inured to the heady effect. Forced together, the three of them make for a toxic mismatch of personalities, yet Brooke comes to see in this maddened hobo the half-forgotten face of her father – and so, on this long dark night of the soul, a psychodrama unfolds, full of hope and fear, and just possibly catharsis.

  The assuredly unsettling feature from writer/director John Pata, Black Mold takes its characters on an increasingly hallucinatory trip through processes both psychological and artistic, where violence and terror lurk around every corner, and where inner damage makes everyone their own worst enemy. Some of its elements and images are a little reminiscent of Paddy Breathnach’s Shrooms (2007) and Gaspar Noé’s Climax (2018), but this is always at heart a film about photography, taking pictures of both buildings and characters in a dilapidated, abandoned, rawly exposed state, and seeing what develops.

strap: John Pata’s feature lets a damaged photographer process her guilt, loss, hope and fear in an abandoned building

© Anton Bitel