Tuesday, 3 October 2017

October Nightmares III #3: Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004) - "The Most Significant Televisual Event Since Quantum Leap"

"I'm Garth Marenghi. Author, dream-weaver, visionary. Plus actor. You are about to enter the world of my imagination. You are entering...my Dark Place"


Welcome, friend. You know, a lot of people say: 'Iron Criterion? Isn’t he the guy who writes all those crap reviews?' Well, good luck to you, you’re an idiot. Because my reviews always say something, even if it’s just something simple like: 'Don’t genetically engineer crabs to be as big as men', there's always a message or a theme. If you just read that and realised I was paraphrasing Garth Marenghi's Darkplace then congratulations to you, reader, you've had the pleasure of watching one of the all-time greatest horror TV series. 

Darkplace is a horror spoof which ran for a single season on Channel 4 (UK) back in 2004. I feel it's important to firmly establish that the show was most definitely a spoof before I proceed any further. Because taken purely at face value, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace feels like something you'd make for your college project - probably starring a post-Alien 3 Lance Henriksen. Alas, I feel that's how the majority of the public felt, because the show didn't make it beyond its meagre six episode run.

The rub of Darkplace is as follows: in the 80's, legendary British pulp horror novelist Garth Marenghi created a show based on his work; a show which was "so radical, so risky, so dangerous, so goddamn crazy" the powers that be had to slap him back down to Earth like the Icarus of Bolton. Only now, in the greatest artistic drought in broadcast history, Channel 4 have asked him air his long-neglected masterpiece. 


Or that's the set up at least. In reality we have a multilayered spoof. A parody of 80's TV, within a framing device which sees Marenghi (Matt Holness) introduce his show and retroactively dissect it alongside friend, manager, and co-star Dean Learner (Richard Ayoade), and fellow actor Todd Rivers (Matt Berry). Alice Lowe is the forth star of the show-within-a-show, playing a PMS powerd psychic, but she's not in the present day scenes as her actress character is missing presumed dead.

It's clever stuff. On one hand, it's a brutal take down of the cult-horror writer - the likes of Stephen King, James Herbert, Shaun HutsonRichard Laymon - self-made renegade mavericks of the paperback. Creators of stories involving killer slugs, eldritch rape fogs, and randy cellar dwelling beasts. Whose books edged their sensationalism with gaudy hand-drawn artwork of severed limbs, abominations, and the suggestion of a tit. Writers who pretended to gritty realism whilst they rubbed themselves through the crease in their jeans, as they joyfully wrote about things which made my old dodgy PE teacher seem fine in comparison.

Marenghi epitomises that particular breed of author as he swaggers around in leather jackets - looking surprisingly like William Friedkin - peddling his own greatness and prehistoric world-views. Exalting himself as a dream-weaver and free-thinking radical. He's joined by Learner, his seedy publisher and producer - a no talent cigar smoking man who'd sell his own mother and has most definitely killed someone in a sex accident. Learner is given all the deadpan gems, such as "If someone has to die, it might as well be a techie."

So Darkplace's central conceit works as a send up of sleazy writers and producers to the extent you imagine Holness and Ayoade are drawing from experience. But the actual show itself is closer to Airplane style humour, only less apparent. Set in Darkplace Hospital, "over the very gates of Hell," in Romford, Essex, the show sees Marenghi play Dr Rick Dagless M.D (still Holness), an uncompromising doctor who packs a hand cannon and a poetic soul. He's not too unlike the self-indulgent characters Tom Atkins used to play: average Joes who also happen to be able to swing a mean punch, shag a bird senseless, and knock back a drink.

Darkplace Hospital is the sort of place forced to deal with fungal spores turning people into cauliflower, peanuts which mutate people into apes, exploding patients, rapist one-eyed monsters, ghostly Scotsmen, and "day to day admin". Think Quincy, ME. Thorton Reed (played by Ayoade as Learner) is the no-nonsense hospital administrator, who wields a pump action shotgun and poorly delivered quip. It's all the stuff of horror paperbacks from the 70's and 80's: a period of modern history where writers seemingly challenged themselves to come up with the shitiest book possible.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is a celebration of the worst excesses of horror. One executed all too well if you ask me. The show is packed with stilted dialogue, hammy acting, production errors, choppy editing, poor special effects. Every minute aspect of the show is designed to emulate a show made in the 80's, right down to the old-school Channel 4 logo, distorted analogue music, and grainy film stock. Even Dr Sanchez's (Todd Rivers - Matt Berry) vocals are constantly out of sync. He is dubbed over by himself and around an octave lower, like in a Kung-Fu movie.

It's a love letter to horror and the old-school, warts-and-all. Authentic even down to the pitch perfect cheesy power ballad, 'One Track Lover', performed by Berry in the last episode. Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of Darkplace was that it fooled far too many people. In the words of Dean Learner: "I call Garth the "Orson Welles of horror", and that's not just because of his weight".


Enjoyed this piece? Then leave a comment and share it about. Also, follow Iron on FacebookGoogle Plus and Twitter to stay up to date. Stalker.