A chilling show from one of the few authors who has written more books than they've read...
Thing of the Day #26: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004)
It’s the 1980’s, and prolific (if not actually talented) horror author Garth Marenghi is at the height of his fame. Naturally, he makes the move to the small screen. But his envelope-pushing scares are, for whatever reason, pulled from the schedule before airing. Until now. The network has uncovered these lost episodes of the hospital-set, occult-themed horror/drama series, intercut them with modern-day interviews with the main cast members (except for the mysteriously-unaccounted-for female lead), and is now beaming them into your home.
If any of the above yarn was true, it would be right up my alley. The fact that it’s actually a metafictional creation of comedian Matthew Holness (who writes and stars, just like his character Garth Marenghi) and director Richard Ayoade (who you may know from The IT Crowd, and who wrote and directed the excellent Submarine) somehow makes it even better.
Presented as if it really were a shoddy 80’s television series, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace builds a mythos around the cut-rate horror author and the character he plays on television, who is transparently based on how the author sees himself. By alternating between interview segments and the show itself, Garth Marenghi is quickly revealed to be a self-serious egomaniac. He seems to believe that his writing has the same level of cosmic importance as his show’s protagonists’ combination doctoring/hospital-administration/demon-slaying. As we learn from the excerpts at the beginning of each episode and from his television scripts, however, he’s a hack. An excerpt from one of his many novels reads: “Something was pouring from his mouth. Blood? Blood. Crimson, copper-smelling blood, his blood. Blood. Blood. Blood. And bits of sick.” His writing’s clumsiness extends to his characters; every other character exists to reinforce the awesomeness of the troubled-but-brilliant Rick Dagless, M.D., or to stand in his way before reluctantly acknowledging his genius once he solves this week’s nonsense supernatural drama.
Where the show-within-a-show is a hodgepodge of “scary” tropes, however, the real Darkplace constructs an elaborate mythology around the fictional series’ actors, and sells it all through its note-perfect direction and visual style. The fictional Darkplace is a mess, with boom mics straying into shot, cruddy visual effects, and atrocious line-readings. Every one of those production mistakes builds up the sense that what you’re watching really is some delusional artist’s labour of love. In one memorable segment, a character explains in an interview that the episodes were running as much as eight minutes short, and that although they tried to keep it away from the dialog as much as possible, “anything without dialog was considered for slow-motion”. The metafictional gags run just about as deep as you care to follow them; for instance, you may notice that the model of the hospital, used in establishing shots between scenes, is surrounded by a barren wasteland, while the rooftop scenes show the hospital to be surrounded by a bustling city. These touches function as jokes, but also help sell the idea that there really was a half-assed “visionary” in the 80’s who went to the trouble of creating a TV show simply as a temple to his own genius.
Over the course of its six episodes, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace builds entrancing stories at three levels of fiction. At the bottom is a dingy, ramshackle 80’s curio, with an obvious author avatar at its centre. Above lies that show’s egomaniac author, and a group of actors who wouldn’t dream of saying no to him (except for the one who did, and is likely buried somewhere in the eastern bloc because of it…). Finally, at the real-world level, we have the group of skilled comics/film-makers who created it all, slavishly recreating the trash of yesterday to make it all plausible and most importantly funny. With all that going on, Darkplace's six episodes pack a hell of a punch.