Garth Marenghi's Darkplace: The Complete Series Review
"He whisked off her shoes and panties in one movement, wild like an enraged shark, his bulky totem beating a seductive rhythm. Mary's body felt like it was burning, even though the room was properly air-conditioned. They tried all the positions: on top, doggy, and normal. Exhausted, they collapsed on to the recently extended sofa bed. Then, a hellbeast ate them."Above is an extract from a novel penned by the acclaimed horror writer Garth Marenghi, who, in the early 1980s, with the assistance of his publisher/producer Dean Learner, wrote, directed and starred in Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, an at the time misunderstood horror/sci-fi series set in a sinister hospital in Romford, located over the very gates of Hell itself. Marenghi himself features as Dr. Rick Dagless MD, the charismatic and brilliantly intelligent protagonist, who, along with his colleagues - the devilishly handsome Dr. Lucien Sanchez (Todd Rivers), the ditzy Dr. Liz Asher (Madeleine Wool), and the shotgun-toting administrator Thornton Reed (Learner) - battles everything from Scotch Mist to cosmic broccoli. Although around 50 episodes were produced, the series was eventually rejected for broadcast by Channel 4, although it did enjoy a brief run in Peru. Now, two decades later, Darkplace has finally been dusted off and a selection of six episodes presented along with interviews with Marenghi, Learner and Rivers, in the hope that it will now receive the acclaim it so richly deserves...
- Garth Marenghi, Juggers
Or at least that's the idea. In reality, Darkplace is an elaborate and brilliantly executed hoax, designed to lampoon 1980s television, horror, sci-fi and the rampant egotism of self-appointed "mastermind" authors. It was actually made in 2004, but the effect is so convincing that it's genuinely believable as a product of the 1980s. Everything, from the fashion, to the music, to the texture of film stock, to the overly punchy audio quality and dated synthesiser score, is captured with expert aplomb, to the extent that more than a few people have actually been taken in by the scam. (I once read a post on a message board where one member, disappointed that no more episodes would be aired after the initial six, commented that it should be relatively straightforward to commission a new series given that around 50 episodes were festering in the archives!)
It goes without saying that Darkplace is really, really bad, and intentionally so. The episodes are hilariously incompetent in their execution, with clumsy editing, incompetent framing, laughable special effects, wobbly sets, atrocious writing and, last but not least, staggeringly poor performances, with Learner's monotone "reading from the page" delivery contrasting with Rivers's ostentatious theatre-like readings. However, none of this would be half as amusing if it wasn't such an accurate portrayal of what television was really like in the 1980s. It's taken to excess, of course, with the sheer awfulness of the execution making it clear that this is satire rather than the real thing, but it is the attention to detail - from the retro Channel 4 logo at the start to the distortion of the analogue music track at the start of scenes - that makes it so believable. At the same time, however, it's clear that the production team have a genuine fondness for the material they are lampooning, which makes Darkplace infinitely more watchable (for me) than the likes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, whose annoying snarkiness is indicative of an entire generation of viewers who feel a need to prove that they are "above" the material they are watching.
Had the episodes merely aired in their stand-alone form, the show would already have been amusing enough. The real icing on the cake, however, is the interview material that frames it. In the roles of their characters reminiscing about the show several years after the fact, Matthew Holness (co-writer and Garth Marenghi), Richard Ayoade (co-writer, director and Dean Learner) and Matt Berry (Todd Rivers) deliver some of the funniest material of all. Here, Marenghi is presented as a blinkered "genius", still thoroughly convinced that the show is a masterpiece, while Rivers is portrayed as a washed-up, has-been theatre actor, whose experiences on the show have left him with an alcohol dependency and an extremely hazy memory. A glass of whisky in his hand at all times, Rivers alternates between praising his own performance, criticising the episodes themselves and, on several occasions, claiming to have absolutely no recollection of actually starring in them. Anyone who has been exposed to interviews with big-name actors forced to star in Z-grade material will be instantly familiar with this type of individual. Learner, meanwhile, with his oddly-angled beret and expensive cigar, is the perfect picture of a sleazy media tycoon, while Marenghi (who also introduces each segment with a reading from one of his dreadful pulp novels) adopts a highly defensive stance, aggressively justifying the material and explaining the ham-fisted subtext behind it (such as a virus turning people into broccoli which he claims is a commentary on AIDS). Again, Marenghi should be instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with retrospectives of these sorts.
Darkplace will, I suspect, be something of an acquired taste. An appreciation of its attention to detail and a proper understanding of its comedy requires some familiarity with the material being lampooned, while many are likely to be put off by the fact that it is essentially the same joke repeated over and over again. However, those who grew up on 1980s horror and sci-fi, much of it bad, should get a real kick out of Darkplace. It is in my opinion one of the funniest comedies of the last decade, and the fact that part of me knows that, had it really aired in the 80s, I would almost certainly have tuned in religiously, is proof that it operates on some level beyond simply making fun of its source material.
It's difficult to know how to treat the audio-visual quality of this release, given that its flaws are, as far as can be ascertained, completely intentional. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Darkplace looks and sounds every bit like television from the 1980s, with brown-tinted film stock, colour bleed and a lot of video noise. The source materials are also quite grainy, so the fact that the compression is handled very well, despite six episodes and a wealth of bonus materials being crammed on to a single dual-layer disc, is most impressive.
The audio, meanwhile, is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. It's mostly mono, but the accompanying music, which netted composer Andrew Hewitt a BAFTA nomination, makes use of both channels to great effect. The sound has all of the volume and clarity changes associated with cheap recording, while overdubbing and the desynchronisation of picture and audio are often used to hilarious effect. In the final analysis, therefore, the DVD is a very accurate representation of the creators' intentions.
English subtitles are provided for the episodes and all the extras apart from the commentaries.
Considering how few people watched Darkplace when it originally aired in 2004, Channel 4 have certainly pulled out all the stops as far as extras are concerned. The extras and menus are designed to continue the illusion of the show genuinely being a product of the 1980s, with all manner of 80s memorabilia and in-character interviews. Each episode has an audio commentary featuring Holness, Ayoade and Berry in character as Marenghi, Learner and Rivers respectively, while Darkplace Illuminatum and Misc. Horrificata Illuminata consist of over an hour's worth of on-camera interview material that didn't make it into the episodes themselves. A lot of this is as good as anything that actually made it to air, with Learner's explanation for why only six episodes have materialised being particularly funny.
Also included are a collection of storyboard-to-film comparisons, showing off Marenghi's hilariously inept drawings, as well as a gallery, B-roll footage (purported to have been shot by Marenghi's wife, Pam), a cut scene and an early version of a scene from the second episode - apparently all that survives of the "original" version of Darkplace, 43 episodes of which were shot before Learner decided he didn't like his hairstyle and demanded that everything be refilmed. Some radio ads featuring the three main actors in character, designed to drum up support for the show due to its poor viewing figures, are also provided, while fans are sure to appreciate the inclusion of an extended version of the "One Track Lover" song from the sixth episode, along with an assortment of music from the show, including its title theme.
In something of a twist of irony, the show achieved poor viewing figures when it aired in January and February of 2004, and and was not repeated until very recently, when Channel 4 began re-airing it in an obscure time slot on 3rd October. However, it quickly developed a strong cult following, and one would hope that the long overdue release of this DVD will make it available to a wider audience. It may not be for everyone, but Darkplace is, in this reviewer's opinion, absolutely hilarious and required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in horror and sci-fi, provided they are prepared to take a few steps back and laugh along with the show at the sometimes ridiculous nature of the material.
9 out of 10
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8 out of 10