Hell Hath Fury:
The ‘horror illuminatum’
words by A. Thomas Pennington
The spoof-horror series, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace – which chronicles the conception and production of a fictional 1980s television program, said to be: “so radical, so risky, so dangerous, so goddamn crazy, that the so-called powers that be became too scared to show it” – premiered in the early months of 2004 to strong reviews, but little interest from viewers. Since that time, it’s developed a devoted cult audience more attuned to its combination of clever meta-fiction, genre tribute and hilarious lampoon.
“Once Upon a Beginning”
An ordinary man sits at a desk pounding the keys of his typewriter. Behind him, a backdrop of chroma-keyed stars radiate, like diamonds against black baize. As his manic creativity consumes him, the effect of the shot creates the impression that the man is lost in the cosmos; his body suspended as if floating through time and space. Memories of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), and its image of a floating door to the universe, create an obvious point of reference: a visual echo to that same “dimension of imagination” where strange stories unfold. Throwing a finished page over his shoulder in an act of completion, it dissolves almost immediately into a vague premonition of fantastical imagery; a warning of things to come.
“You’re about to enter the world of my imagination“, the voice-over urges, as the sequence explodes into a busy montage of drama, action and the fantastique. Against a soundtrack of giddy synthesizers, guns are drawn and fired, knowing glances are exchanged between actors carefully coiffured and framed with soft studio lighting, while an ambulance, parked idle in a vacant woodland, erupts in a burst of flames. These are the images that would have greeted audiences tuning into the inaugural episode of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace; both the show itself, broadcast on Channel 4 in the first half of 2004, and its fictional counterpart, the show within the show, which is said to have premiered in the 1980s (“It had a brief run in Peru.“)
Written and created by Richard Ayoade and Matthew Holness, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace grew out of the success of the pair’s earlier stage productions: “Garth Marenghi’s Fright Knight“, performed at the 2000 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and its follow-up, “Garth Marenghi’s Netherhead“, which won the Perrier Award (now known as the Edinburgh Comedy Award) the following year. In both productions, Holness would refine the characterisation of Marenghi, a spoof horror writer specialising in lurid schlock titles, like “Slicer“, “R.I.P.P.E.R.” and “Black Fang.”
“A Titan of Terror”
In conception, Marenghi – who describes himself in the show’s opening vox as an “author, dream-weaver, visionary, plus actor” – is a catalogue of living influences cribbed from real-life writers of horror and fantasy fiction. With his black leather jacket, off-the-shoulder mullet, and unfashionable glasses, he has the look of a budget Stephen King, circa the 1980s. Like King, who places the majority of his own stories in his native Maine, Marenghi’s horror is rooted firmly in his hometown of Romford, which here becomes a host to all manner of supernatural phenomena centred around the fittingly named Darkplace Hospital.
While King may be a small part of the Marenghi DNA, at least in his style and the vagaries of his subject matter, the genetic makeup of the character as both a parody and embodiment of a certain type of pulp horror fiction is more pointed and wide-ranging. Fans and devotees of horror literature may find elements of the Marenghi character and his influences in fellow British writers like Shaun Hutson, James Herbert, and Guy N. Smith.
Herbert’s early work, like that of the fictional Marenghi, specialised in blandly titled but transgressive stories of debasement and defilement. Books like The Rats (1974), The Fog (1975) [not related to the similarly titled 1980 film by John Carpenter], and The Dark (1980), were all sold with lurid paperback covers similar to those of Marenghi’s; with severed heads locked in a death-mask scream, or fierce-figures emerging maniacally from the shadows.
Similarly, Hutson, whose early books include intentionally creeping and grotesque titles like Slugs (1982) and Spawn (1983) – the strapline of which infamously read: “from the grave to the cradle came the SPAWN” – have an affinity with Marenghi’s style of descriptive repulsion (“Maggots? Maggots!” etc.) Elsewhere, Marenghi’s book, “Crab“, seems like a fairly obvious reference to/parody of Smith’s long-running series of horror stories about the same murderous crustaceans, including Night of the Crabs (1976), Killer Crabs (1978) and Crabs on the Rampage (1981).
While the series mines a lot of humour at the expense of this kind of ostensibly cheap and trashy horror fiction, where logic and plausibility take a backseat to outré imagery and revelry in bad taste, the real focus of the jokes is not so much the genre as Marenghi himself. Embodying an attitude of narcissism, self-belief, and self-delusion far beyond his abilities, Marenghi is a character in the great tradition of figures like Alan Partridge and David Brent. Somebody clueless to the perception of his own character from those on the outside looking in, protected behind the wall of a self-erected legacy, where the problem is with everyone else’s inability to grasp his singular brilliance. In short, someone we laugh at, rather than with.
While examples of Marenghi’s writing might draw belly laughs from its general incompetence, gleeful tastelessness and commitment to purple prose, it’s his misplaced pride when he boasts about having written more books than he’s read, or the absolute gall of someone comparing their own work about a rat driving a bus (“Black Fang“) to that of James Joyce, Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci and Jesus Christ, that really invites ridicule.
Marenghi’s narcissism is enabled and emboldened by the support of his publisher, Dean Learner (played by Ayoade in one of his greatest comic creations); a peddler of “gentleman’s magazines” and owner of several exotic nightclubs, whose role as the author’s personal publisher and agent seems to be his one stab at legitimacy. For Learner – who also performs the role of hospital manager Thornton Reed in the show’s titular lost classic – Marenghi is a “titan of terror“, and his work can only be appreciated by a knowing few.
As the two characters look back on the conception and production of the fictional 1980s “Darkplace” TV series, the reflections of Marenghi and Learner, as well as the actor Todd Rivers (as golden-voiced Lothario Dr. Lucien Sanchez – brilliantly played by actor and musician Matt Berry in a breakout role), it’s the delusion of the characters and the self-belief that they created a work of defining televisual art, that draws the greatest amusement. They talk about a work powerful enough and dangerous enough to change the fabric of society, but what we’re seeing could only be described as the horror equivalent of Crossroads (1964-1988); the infamously thrown-together UK soap opera, where the writing and performances were as weak and wooden as the rickety sets.
“This place was dark. Damn dark! Hence, Darkplace.”
If the character of Garth Marenghi demonstrates a clear confluence of influences across the entire spectrum of post-war horror, then so too does the show itself. Throughout “Darkplace“, the brilliance of the jokes, and the ability of the show to operate on additional levels, is rooted in the authenticity of its design and conception. While we’re invited to laugh at Marenghi and his stories of a woman mutating into a literal vegetable, or a man giving birth to a rampaging ‘eye-child’, it’s obvious that both Holness and Ayoade (the latter in his capacity as the series director) have an encyclopedic knowledge of horror film and television, and approach the layering of references, spoofs and imitations around these jokes with the same post-modern complexity that a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino brought to works such as Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2 (2003-2004) and his “Grindhouse” instalment Death Proof (2007).
From the opening scene of the first episode, “Once Upon a Beginning“, there are echoes and similarities to countless works of horror film and fiction, as well as an inherent understanding of the glaring but affectionate flaws and creative discrepancies that made those works such a joy. Concerning itself with the story of a mysterious patient with a personal connection to Marenghi’s on-screen character – his avatar, the entirely brilliant and unerringly heroic Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. – the episode establishes an immediate tone, language and self-reflexive aesthetic, which will be immediately familiar to anyone weaned on old 50s B-movies, Italian horror films from the 70s and 80s, and the best kind of straight-to-video schlock. When the patient becomes a living portal to one of the gates of hell that Darkplace Hospital was originally built upon, the episode suddenly becomes enthused with the spirit of Lucio Fulci and the Italian director’s great run of ultra-violent but nonsensical films dubbed “The Gates of Hell trilogy.”
If the first episode evokes Fulci’s films, such as City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981), then later episodes will go on to reference a variety of different media, from the obvious Lovecraftian horror of inter-dimensional portals and strange phenomena from outer space to the more classical Gothic influences of Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and the Hammer Horror films (with their fog-shrouded ‘exteriors’ built on studio soundstages, and blue-tinted day-for-night encounters in eerie graveyards.)
The second episode, “Hell Hath Fury“, broaches the theme of telekinesis; strengthening the connection of the character Dr. Liz Asher to the world of the uncanny, and in doing so, finding visual and thematic similarities to director Brian De Palma’s great double-bill of films about telekinesis: his popular Stephen King adaptation, Carrie (1976), and its later, still-underrated thematic counterpart, The Fury (1978).
Asher, backcombed and vacant, used as the punchline to a number of jokes that make light of the rampant sexism and “playful” harassment prevalent in media from the 70s and 80s, is played in the show by the enigmatic actress Madeleine Wool. During the interview retrospectives, Wool doesn’t appear alongside her co-stars, Marenghi and Rivers, having disappeared following the shows initial failure. According to publisher and producer Dean Learner, the actress is missing, presumed dead. “She was like a candle in the wind“, Learner adds. “Unreliable.” (In reality, the character is brilliantly performed by actor and writer, Alice Lowe.)
Later episodes will find time to indulge in idiosyncratic parodies of the enduringly popular Planet of the Apes (1968) [episode 4, “The Apes of Wrath“], John Carpenter’s vengeful pirate shocker The Fog (1980) [episode 5, “Scotch Mist“, in which Marenghi airs his anti-Scottish prejudice], and a weird hybrid of the H.P. Lovecraft story The Colour Out of Space (1927) and John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids (1951), among other influences [episode 6, “The Creeping Moss from the Shores of Shuggoth“, which also features arguably the greatest moment of the entire series: an extended cut-away to a Todd Rivers’ music video for his failed pop hit, “One Track Lover.”]
“The doors of Darkplace were open. Not the literal doors of the building, most of which were closed. But evil doors. Dark doors. Doors to the beyond. Doors that were hard to shut because they were abstract and didn’t have handles. They were more like portals really.”
Placing a horror story or anthology of stories in a hospital setting has a long tradition. While psychiatric hospitals, active or abandoned, tend to dominate both horror films and literature, there is a whole sub-genre of works that find something disquieting and unsettling about the environment of the standard city hospital. Titles as varied as the self-explanatory Horror Hospital (1973) by director Antony Balch; Coma (1978), directed by best-selling author Michael Crichton; the ‘Ozploitation’ shocker Patrick (also 1978) directed by Richard Franklin – another work that like the first episode of the series, “Once Upon a Beginning“, concerns itself with the backstory of a mysterious ‘patient x’ demonstrating dangerous psychokinetic abilities – Altered States (1980) directed by Ken Russell – itself a potential point of influence for the later episode, “The Apes of Wrath“, and the (sort of) philosophical grappling with the nature of man and ‘the beast within’ – Halloween II (1981), the immediate sequel to John Carpenter’s landmark 1978 slasher film, which traded suburban streets for the labyrinthine corridors of a local hospital; the films of Stuart Gordon, specifically Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) – both Lovecraft-inspired horror stories with an emphasis on body horror and transmutation – and finally a more analogous example, the Japanese horror film Infection (2004) by director Masayuki Ochiai, which like “Darkplace” has an affinity for saturated colours and prowling shots around the hospital’s nocturnal corridors.
A closer point of comparison, however, is possibly the Danish horror series The Kingdom (1994-1997). Created by controversial filmmaker Lars von Trier, The Kingdom also blends horror and comedy, albeit in a far more disturbing, less tongue-in-cheek approach to the meta-parody by Holness and Ayoade. However, the idea of hospitals built on sites of ancient evil, psychic phenomena, and the contrast between scenes of supernatural shock and basic office administration, draw parallels to the work in question, as does the practice of having characters end each episode monologuing from the hospital’s rooftops.
The Kingdom would later be updated for American audiences, not once, but twice. First, very loosely, in the Stuart Gillard and Stephen Tolkin series All Souls (2001), which followed the medical staff at a haunted teaching hospital, the All Souls of the title. More inspired by than directly copied, The Kingdom would nonetheless get a proper remake a few years later by none other than Stephen King. Retitled Kingdom Hospital, this direct remake of von Trier’s series would premier the same year as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, though unfortunately it doesn’t begin each episode with a clip of King reading one of the more salacious passages from his own books.
“A future shock that will shit you up!”
The initial fate of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, at least in terms of its reception in the UK, was similar to that of another series that spoofed the conventions and iconography of classic British horror films in the tradition of those by Amicus Productions, Hammer Studios and Tigon Productions: Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible (2001). Co-written by and starring Steve Coogan, Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible took the form of a lurid anthology series, with full reverence to the similarly titled Freddie Francis film, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), and shows like Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988).
Featuring extended cameos from horror veterans like Honor Blackman, Graham Crowden, Sheila Keith and Angela Pleasence, alongside cult comedy actors like Mark Gatiss, John Thomson, Simon Pegg and Ronni Ancona, each episode of Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible would recreate the style and iconography of a particular period of British horror cinema, albeit, in a way that may have proven to be too niche for audiences looking for straight laughs. While the no less horrifying and reverential The League of Gentlemen (1999-2017) would find success with mainstream audiences, the perception was that both “House of Horrible” and “Darkplace” had gone all-in on a subject that was too obscure and unknown to the majority of viewers for the joke to be well received. However, while Coogan’s project has remained lost to the depths of time, overshadowed by its creator’s more successful endeavours, “Darkplace” has managed to endure, appreciated, as Dean Learner himself anticipated in regard to its fictional counterpart, by a dedicated few.
Understanding the reason for the show’s initial lack of success is to understand why Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace has gone on to develop such a loyal cult following. In short, the show speaks to the right audience; an audience attuned to the influence of horror fiction from a variety of different sub-genres and media, and familiar enough with their conventions and examples to appreciate jokes not just about the narrative machinations of zombie films and stories about supernatural manifestations, but also jokes about film technique, style and an affection for recognizably “bad” acting, special effects, and intentionally incompetent moviemaking. Not since Tim Burton’s excellent biographical film Ed Wood (1994), or the similar Steve Martin-scripted Bowfinger (1999), has a work dedicated as much effort to exposing and delighting in the minutia of low-budget filmmaking, taking continuity errors, visible boom mics and bad over-dubbing of exposition, and turning them into sophisticated punchlines that complement and add to the more general comedy of the show.
“An eagle-eyed viewer might be able to see the wires. A pedant might be able to see the wires. But I think if you’re looking at the wires, you’re ignoring the story. If you go to a puppet show, you can see the wires. But it’s about the puppets, it’s not about the string. If you go to a Punch and Judy show and you’re only watching the wires, you’re a freak.“
After “Darkplace“, Marenghi would make further appearances in the spin-off series, Man to Man with Dean Learner (2006); a spoof chat show in the tradition of Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994-1995) and The Mrs Merton Show (1995-1998). In the premiere episode, Marenghi, as star guest, discusses his latest project, a disaster film called “War of The Wasps“, and reflects on his own life following a near-fatal accident (again, shades of Stephen King). The character would return for a final time in the concluding episode, a retrospective on the life of British cult actor Randolph Caer (also played by Holness), whose career was destroyed when he starred in the Dean Learner directed, Marenghi scripted 70s exploitation film, “Bitch Killer“: a fairly note-perfect parody of the early works of filmmakers like Pete Walker and José Larraz – albeit, with a small measure of influence taken from director Michael Powell’s similarly infamous and career-ending masterwork Peeping Tom (1960) and Tobe Hooper’s immortal exploitation classic, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
Since “Darkplace“, many members of the cast and crew have continued down the path of blending comedy and terror, with some even arriving at a place of genuine horror. Ayoade, who would find greater success playing the role of Moss in The IT Crowd (2006-2013) and as a guest panellist, presenter and personality on a variety of UK TV comedy shows, would continue to direct, producing music videos for Arctic Monkeys (his acclaimed clip for the song “Fluorescent Adolescent” is modelled on gritty 70s crime shows like The Sweeney [1975-1978] and features actor Stephen Graham leading a group of clowns in a gangland turf war against rival criminals) before scoring success with the French New Wave inspired coming of age film, Submarine (2010). His last work as director, The Double (2013), an adaptation of an 1846 novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky, features a less parodic combination of awkward humour and bizarre imagery to that of “Darkplace” but is nonetheless cut from a similar cloth.
After her work as the psychic Dr. Liz Asher, Alice Lowe, a familiar face from the CBBC comedy series Horrible Histories (2009-2014), would go on to co-write and co-star in director Ben Wheatley’s acclaimed black comedy horror film, Sightseers (2012) – an odd mix of Mike Leigh’s genial character study Nuts in May (1976) and Oliver Stone’s brutal serial killer commentary Natural Born Killers (1994) – before writing, directing and starring in her own darkly comic slasher movie, Prevenge (2016). Holness, who many of us thought would go on to become one of the great comedy actors of his generation, has also turned to writing and directing, making a debut of sorts with A Gun for George (2011), another black comedy about a fictional writer.
Here, he plays Terry Finch, author of the pulp detective series “The Reprisalizer“, who finds the line between fiction and reality become increasingly blurred following a tragic event. Using an authentic 70s backdrop of brutalist architecture, A Gun for George is no less clever and post-modern than the similarly self-reflexive “Darkplace“, but hints at a seriousness and psychological verisimilitude that would develop through the filmmaker’s subsequent works. Holness’s most recent project as writer and director, Possum (2018), is a strange and unsettling psychological drama that plays like a combination of 70s Public Information Film and the movie Spider (2002) by David Cronenberg. It’s a work that really benefits from the fragile and frayed performance of its lead actor, Sean Harris, and the desolate landscapes of its Norfolk setting.
Due to its lack of initial success, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace didn’t receive a second series. In a way, the legacy of the show is stronger for it. It helps support the joke that what we’re seeing is footage from an old show, barely released and left to gather dust in a loft somewhere, before being rescued and remastered. In its current form, the six-episode run of the initial series, is perfect, finding the right balance between influences and succeeding, both as a great comedy and as a tribute to a particular kind of horror fiction.
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- London Gothic – review January 16, 2021
- Scarred for Life Volume Two: Television in the 1980s – review January 15, 2021
- Runecaster – an interview with Jane Mainley-Piddock January 14, 2021
- The New Abject – review January 13, 2021