It’s the big day- Halloween. All in all, this has been a pretty fun October here. As a first time out, Reruns From the Crypt has been an interesting project. I tried to avoid a direct theme between the shows, and yet one grew in spite of that.
That said, after a double-header of David Lynch and Lars von Trier, I decided to make the final week a lighter note. That this one also shares a’supernatural elements in a hospital’ theme with The Kingdom is a happy coincidence. First and foremost, this was picked to be a lighter note to send off the month.
Which brings us to Matthew Holness and Richard Ayoade’s horror spoof Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.
Anyone who knows me in person has probably heard me recommending this series before. It’s one of those shows that’s had an odd history in terms of exposure in the US: low ratings when it aired before gaining something of a cult following leading to brief runs, most notably on Adult Swim. There was a DVD release in England, but sadly the show remains out of print here.
The premise for the show is arguably one of its stronger points. Like the IFC series The Spoils of Babylon, the title of the series is a reference to a show-within-the-show. Each episode begins with an introduction by the fictional Marenghi (Holness, based on a character he first developed for stage) – a shlocky but prolific British horror writer who reads as a spoof of Stephen King, only if he was less aged hippie and more self-important blowhard.
As he tells it, Darkplace was a series he developed back in the 80s with his publisher Dean Learner (Ayoade). The show, about supernatural goings on at a hospital (written, directed, and starring Marenghi as stoic hero Dr. Rick Dagless M.D. with Learner as hospital manager Thornton Reed), is described as having been too controversial and out there for British television, so it was summarily shelved. Years later, thanks to a creative shortage, he is asked to roll it back out of storage.
Of course, despite Marenghi’s assurances, the show is nowhere near the masterpiece he believes it to be. The featured Darkplace show within the series is riddled with overdone writing, hammy acting, terrible special effects, a healthy dash of Marenghi’s ego, and, for as much as he argues the show’s being progressive, a sizable amount of misogyny throughout and even racism in one episode.
Which is ultimately part of the joke. If the series were just presented as the in-series Darkplace television show, it would still be amusing, but really not that strong. What sets this apart is that extra layer of story that comes care of the introductions and epilogues as well as mid-episode commentaries by Marenghi and Learner, as well as series co-star Todd Rivers (Matt Berry). The fourth member of the main cast, Madeline Wool (Alice Lowe) is unavailable for comment, as we later learn that she is missing and presumed dead under some rather suspicious circumstances (made even more suspicious care of some of Learner’s comments on the matter).
This is one of those shows that could have backfired on a number of levels. The concept of doing a deliberately bad production for humor is a VERY tricky one to get right. Too often you risk breaking the illusion of ineptitude by letting the self-awareness of the product show. When that happens, let’s face it: it can’t really be so bad it’s good if the bad aspects were engineered.
Ayoade and Holness seem to be aware of this, which is why it’s not the only ace in their deck. They certainly don’t drag their feet (and neither do Berry or Lowe, who both overact and underact their respective roles perfectly) and the shlocky elements and overly prosy (and, for Marenghi occasionally masturbatory dialogue – figuratively, but he can’t pass up an opportunity to put his character on a pedestal as several exchanges are quick to remind us) script further add to how bad this show is.
But in the end, the ineptitude of the show isn’t the punchline. It’s in on the joke, but it’s not the joke itself. The joke is squarely on Marenghi and Learner, as also shown through their interviews. As we learn pretty early on, they’re both pretty horrible people: Marenghi is an egomaniac with a penchant for misogyny and an overinflated sense of self, while Learner is crass and unapologetic about his worst traits – such as when he recounts hitting one of the child actors on set.
These two, while exaggerated for laughs, really are utter bastards. Which makes the fact that this show -their magnum opus- is a poorly made, low budget piece of dreck, go from just a passing chuckle to funny as Hell.
Really, it’s a show that’s somewhat hard to sell in text without giving too much of the joke away (always a hurdle with comedy). It’s not a style of humor that everyone will necessarily get on board with, but if you’re a fan of parody, mockumentary, or just comedy at the expense of horrible characters, even if they don’t realize they’re the butt of the joke, then this may be worth giving the three hours of time its six episodes will ask for.
It’s a show that really doesn’t have much in the way of similar cousins, and for as horrible as I’ve made Marenghi and Learner sound…well…they’re also pretty funny in just how oblivious they are to their horrible sides. Consider this to be like that ‘end of the Halloween season’ candy: a short, but quite enjoyable bit of weirdness to come down from the Halloween horrors with.
So, for a first year trying this project out, this went pretty well. I’m working on arranging some more thematic lineups for if this happens in future years. In the meantime, it’s been a fun experience visiting and revisiting these shows, and hopefully this got some of you interested in giving them a watch.
In the meantime, I’m back to work on the shows will be keeping with regularly as well as some other recurring projects I have lined up.
Till then, a Happy Halloween to you all.
-The interview framing device does a great job of making this more than just a ‘deliberately crappy’ parody
-The cast all commit to the overall joke to great effect
-If you’re not feeling the show’s humor by the end of the first episode, chances are the show’s not gonna do it for you
-To that end, if you find Marenghi and Learner’s jerkishness a problem, turn back now – it’s a big part of the show as well as the joke