The horror-parody has long been a divisive genre. There are certainly established classics like Young Frankenstein, but for every Young Frankenstein there are five Scary Movie films. This makes the sheer delight of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace all the more exciting, and, with the recent release of creator and star Matthew Holness’ directorial debut Possum, there’s no better time to revisit the program. The show works for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that it is genuinely clever and witty writing, but there are arguably two aspects which make it brilliant: its commitment to detail and the way it analyzes, and often criticizes, the figure of the horror writer.
A quick synopsis: Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace is a comedy show about a horror writer who wrote a television show sometime in the 80s that he claims the network considered “too radical,” and only now will the studio broadcast it, due to a lack of original programming. So, there’s two layers at work: the figure of Garth Marenghi (played by creator Matthew Holness), who gives interviews in between scenes from the show along with his manager Dean Lerner (played by Richard Ayoade) and fellow actor Todd Rivers (played by Matt Berry), and the show-within-the-show, also titled Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a hospital horror show about doctors battling evil forces.
The series itself revolves around Rick Dagless, played by Garth Marenghi in the in-show-universe, who’s a doctor with a background in the occult, as well as his fellow doctors Lucien Sanchez (Todd Rivers), Liz Ascher (Madeleine Wool, played by Alice Lowe), and hospital administrator Thornton Reed (Dean Lerner). That the show bears plot similarities to Stephen King’s miniseries Kingdom Hospital is surprisingly unintentional, as the shows aired only a few months apart from each other. But it does speak volumes about the series’ authenticity: Garth isn’t a direct satire of King, but there are an abundance of similarities. For instance, in the show’s first episode, Garth says, “All I do is sit down at the typewriter and start hitting the keys. Getting them in the right order- that’s the trick,” in one of the interview segments. Here, Marenghi paints writing as a sort of exorcism, emphasizing the idea that when he writes, he is getting out a necessary part of himself that’s built up inside of him. Compare that to a quote from Stephen King himself, who, when asked why he writes, said, “The answer to that is fairly simple—there was nothing else I was made to do. I was made to write stories and I love to write stories. That’s why I do it. I really can’t imagine doing anything else and I can’t imagine not doing what I do.” This is, of course, not the only parallel to King that Garth provides: the character of Liz is telepathic and telekinetic, much like characters in King’s own novels Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Shining, Firestarter, and on and on and on and on. And the plot of episode two takes the parallels further: when Liz is having post-menstrual troubles, she begins turning against the workers of the hospital, using a variety of appliances as her weaponry. The menstrual-telekinetic connection obviously calls to mind Carrie, which made a point that Carrie’s abilities were related to her coming-of-age, and the appliances turning against their users recalls King’s one directorial credit, Maximum Overdrive, where cars and machines everywhere began turning against their owners.
However, King isn’t the only allusion the show provides. Episode 5, titled ‘Scotch Mist‘, revolves around vengeful Scottish ghosts who arrive in a mist to attack, which recalls (read: rips-off) John Carpenter’s The Fog. The episode also recalls HP Lovecraft’s well-known racism, which frequently factored into his writing, as Garth’s biases against the Scottish is on-display throughout the whole episode; at one point, Garth, who claims he “wrote this to heal Britain,” even says, “Sometimes you have to actually be a bigot to bring down bigger bigots.” Garth’s own biases come through frequently in the show, especially in the way the character of Liz is written: she’s frequently scripted as irrational and emotional, unable to control herself the way the male doctors do. She’s also enamored with both Garth’s character Rick and Garth himself, who exists in the show-within-the-show’s universe as a horror writer.
The third episode, called ‘Skipper The Eyechild‘, is equally misogynistic in its own way: it revolves around Garth’s genuine desire to father a son, which is made clear in the interview segment when he specifies that he has “four daughters,” and that he feels they’re “not on [his] team.” It also hints at his desperation: in the episode, the character of Rick had a son who was half-grasshopper (and genuinely one of the weirdest and creepiest things in the series), but, after his death, only finds happiness when he begins fathering a giant eye-baby, it becoming his surrogate son in the process.
Garth can’t trust women, and it bleeds into his writing, emphasizing the ways that horror writers, including Lovecraft and King, end up inserting themselves into their own stories over and over, bringing their hang-ups with them in the process. Garth makes this more literal, by actually writing, directing, producing, and starring in his own television show, but he also does it in more subtle ways. He writes female characters who he doesn’t believe are capable of much, and he doesn’t trust the audience either, exemplified in episode six when he says that it’s better that the audience “won’t have to think for [themselves], which is probably safer.” Garth is amongst the world’s most unsubtle writers, which is emphasized by the fact that the snippets of prose we do hear alternate between flowery, purple prose and writing so direct that no one could possibly misunderstand it. Garth says in episode four that he “know[s] writers who use subtext, and they’re cowards,” which seems like his mission statement. And, while he emphasizes that his stories are in fact allegories, he says that “my books always say something, even if it’s something as simple as ‘don’t breed crabs as big as men,’” suggesting Garth doesn’t understand what exactly allegories are.
In addition to crafting a neurotic writer that speaks volumes about how horror writing functions as an extension of the fears and anxieties of its writers, the show-within-the-show is similarly authentic and well-crafted, or, rather, poorly-crafted. But it’s poorly-crafted in a way that seems authentic: Lines are frequently read with no inflection, like in the case of Dean Lerner’s performance as Thornton Reed, or read with the wrong inflection, such as the strange Clint Eastwood-esque rasp that Garth often affects as Rick Dagless. But the show’s comedic arsenal rarely goes too over-the-top: Often, the best jokes are simple, like the frequent times the series misuses the grammar of filmmaking.
The score is another high-point: the theme music for the show starts as John Carpenter-esque synth music, before becoming more overblown, like a synth-rendition of The A-Team theme. It often incorporates the strange sounds of the 80s, be it slap bass or dramatic strings, but it’s clear that everything is being played on a cheap synthesizer. There’s even a direct reference to the Halloween theme at the beginning of episode 5, where music incredibly similar to it plays while we see what looks to be POV shots of someone prowling through the hospital (shades of Halloween II here!). The show never forsakes the tropes of its era either: episodes 4 and 6 both revolve around plots that incorporate body horror, a genre which arguably saw its golden age in the 80s, with people turning into apes as the result of dirty water (which is Re-Animator shade green!) in the former and a woman turning into broccoli in the latter. And the plots of Garth’s books also recall the trashy paperbacks from the era: Afterbirth revolves around a placenta attacking Bristol, which obviously has shades of Rosemary’s Baby and It’s Alive; and who can forget Garth’s novel Black Fang, a speculative tome that asks the question, “what if a rat could drive a bus?”
The show never violates its own rules, though, which is key to its success: audio will always be poorly performed, sets will always look cheap, shots will be reused, props will switch, blocking between characters will change from shot to shot, a character may begin singing about his romantic troubles for no real reason. This is why the show succeeds as well as it does: the universe of the show-within-the-show may be absurd, but it is a consistent universe, and it’s consistent with the way Garth seems to view the world, and fiction by extension. It’s part of why Matthew Holness’ Possum also succeeded: it paid attention to the details of its main characters, and it took seriously their perspectives and the world they lived in, for very different ends. But it also shows that horror and comedy rely often on specificity, on the ability to make an authentic world that the characters can play in. If the world is authentic, then the desired effect can more easily be achieved, and few horror-parodies illustrate that as well as Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.