The Genius of Marenghi

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace
Episode 1: “Once Upon a Beginning” (Originally aired 29 January 2004)

I came to the horror genre later in life. In grade school, there were always a couple precocious geeks (like my fellow Tuba TV columnist) ahead of the curve, poring over Stephen King’s thick trade paperbacks in class, while I was busying myself with the classics. The novels, and the films based on them, seemed pretty fucking degenerate – a few gross-out sequences, some bunk ass story about the spawn of Satan. The Reagan-Thatcherite ‘80s seemed to foster a veritable Renaissance of this gory fearmongering shit – King’s Pet Sematary I and II taught us all to fear cats, Cujo to fear dogs, Barker’s Hellraiser to fear acupuncture. But there was a sub-genre of horror – films like Cronenberg’s Videodrome, or Yuzna’s Society (which my friend Sanjay suckered me into watching) – which captured the era of trickle-down, voodoo economics, when the brutal misadventures of the reactionary West (Iran-Contra, for one) were masked by the icons of media (B-list actor Ronald Reagan now playing President). So, when Yuzna displayed the grand patriarch of bourgeois “society” as literally a head in the place of an asshole, he was getting at something deeper than just a scatological gag.

It\'s all about fitting in.
It's all about fitting in.
Back then, I was too young, maybe a bit too hubristic, to get all that; definitely too much a pansy to stomach even the mildest of the slasher films.

Years later, having grown some stones in my mid-twenties and having traveled to snob-dom and back, I could begin to appreciate the darker genres and the way that all generic writing – whether sci-fi, mystery, Mills and Boon – was shaped, at least in part, by a moment’s political unconscious. Among those genres, horror – from the Gothic, pre-Frontier tales of Poe and Washington Irving to the neoliberal-era films of Clive Barker and Wes Craven – is, in my mind, the most significant.

Take Clive Barker’s 1992 epic, Candyman, for example. The film’s premise resembles that game every unsuspecting grade schooler was suckered into playing (thanks again, Sanjay), wherein you repeat “Bloody Mary, I killed your daughter,” until either an old hag’s face shows up in your reflection or you bolt out of the room, whichever comes first. In the film, Bloody Mary is now the Candyman, the dead son of a tortured slave, lynched for a purported affair with the plantation owner’s white daughter. Barker’s tale was not dissimilar to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison’s Beloved – the ghost of American slavery reappearing in phantasmic form – only Barker grounded Candyman in the present day projects, and in a stroke of genius, reinforced the hysterical fear of Black male predation of white women, which the Candyman was a product of in the first place. Clive Barker > Toni Morrison? It’s a thought that the literati wouldn’t dare fathom.

But my point isn’t about who’s better than whom (Barker), it’s that horror does more than just freak us out, gross us out, make us wet the bed. It says something about the historical moment from which it emerges, about the cultural fears prevalent at that point, and pushes them to their logical, and sometimes illogical, extreme.

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, a show originally created in the 1980s and recently exhumed from the BBC 4 vaults for re-airing, provides a glimpse of what horror can be. For decades now, Darkplace has been a sort of holy grail for horror aficionados, having only enjoyed a limited run on Peruvian television and circulating, thereafter, by way of bootlegged VHS copies. Marenghi, a celebrated horror novelist himself explains that show was so radical, so dangerous that “the so-called powers-that-be” were too scared (how ironic!) to show it. It wasn’t until 2004, during “the worst artistic drought in broadcast history” that the BBC finally let an eager public in on television’s best kept secret.

Set in a hospital that literally rests atop the gates of hell, Darkplace narrates the misadventures of maverick doctor Rick Dagless, M.D. (played by Marenghi, himself) and his encounters with the paranormal. Fellow hotshot surgeon and best buddy Dr. Lucien Sanchez (Todd Rivers), ball-busting admin Thornton Reed (Dean Learner), and psych(oti)ic damsel Liz Asher (Madeleine Wool) round out the cast.

The skeptics may find (and in fact, have found) the premise slightly far-fetched, but it’s worth noting Darkplace’s similarity to Stephen King’s 2004 NBC miniseries Kingdom Hospital. King’s hospital is haunted by the ghosts of children killed in a fire in the old hospital, which was built atop the ruins of a mill that manufactured military uniforms for the Union army (like Barker, King here illustrates the layers of history sedimented on the American psyche). Kingdom Hospital was itself an adaptation of the critically acclaimed Danish mini-series The Kingdom, created by Lars Von Trier of Dancer in the Dark fame. One of the sad ironies of the biz: Marenghi, the pioneer of the televisual hospital-horror genre and the spiritual antecedent of both Von Trier and King, never got his fair due.

In fact, since its re-airing, Darkplace has surprisingly received only mixed reviews. Blogcritics Magazine writes, “[Darkplace will have you] cringing at the awkwardness and feeling the urge to punch self-obsessed, bad horror writers in the face.” Popmatters describes Marenghi as “a self-important scribe whose arrogance is matched only by his ineptitude.” A tad unfair, to say the least, given the show’s modest budget in an era of clumsy (and exceptionally expensive) special effects; in fact, given the technological limitations of the time, Darkplace’s exploding bodies and flying appliances are pretty damn impressive. Barring a few editing gaffs that occasionally distract the viewer (in the pilot episode, for instance, Thornton Reed seems to be constantly in two places at once), the phantasmagorical universe of Darkplace still holds up, even twenty years later.

But the show ultimately isn’t about the effects, the acting, or the soundtrack (masterfully composed by New Wave pioneer, Stig Baasvik); as I see it, the larger contribution of Darkplace is its meditation on the modern scientistic world and our failure to accommodate or make sense of the “irrational.” Indeed, in the series pilot “Once Upon a Beginning,” Marenghi urges his viewers to “put conventional logic aside,” and treats us to a modern day monomyth. Confronted with an old acquaintance possessed by darker forces, Dagless must decide whether to kill his friend, who threatens to open the gates of hell, or allow him to live out his remaining days as a symbiote of evil. Dagless chooses to kill him – twice – and with his sacrifice, temporarily returns the hospital back to normalcy.

It *really* hurts.
It *really* hurts.

The dialogue in “Once Upon” is chockfull of the sharp double-edged dialogue one comes to expect from Marenghi. The action sequences are for the most part tasteful, though the influnce of the gore-hungry 80s at times clouds the serious moral questions the show raises. Clearly, in the pilot, Marenghi is tackling the issues surrounding euthanasia – and quite presciently, for that matter, given that the episode was written before the “assisted suicide” scandals that rocked the Euro-American world in the 1990s. In perhaps one of the most touching scenes in recent horror history, the decapitated (de-corporated?) friend Renwick begs a reluctant Dagless to put him out of his misery. Filmed in dramatic slow motion, Dagless, batting the remains of his friend out of the park, presents all the emotional weight and complexity of assisted suicide in ways that old Kevorkian never could.

In the end, though, the real engine behind Darkplace is the hospital, an institution that symbolizes modernity’s triumphs (where all the advances in scientific/rational thought are utilized) but which nevertheless reminds us of its own limits (a repository of death, in a sense). In a genre never known for its subtlety, Darkplace stands out, pushing us towards a broader understanding of the human psyche, pushing (as his colleague Barker once said) “beyond the limits of flesh and blood, beyond the limits of perhaps life itself, in order to discover some sense of order in what appears to be a disordered universe.”

(Next week: Episode 2, “Hell Hath No Fury”)

– Thumbu Sammy