THREE GUYS AND… A TELEVISON SERIES
series created by Marvin Mercer and Nick Stephenson
“THE SIMPSONS “TREEHOUSE OF HORROR””
written by Dominick Cappello
Sure, the cynics will say something like “Hey, do you remember when The Simpsons used to be funny?” The animated series has become an institution and even if you don’t find the antics of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie as amusing as you did when you were younger, you still have to look forward to their annual Halloween special.
The first aired in 1990, during the show’s second season. The episode opens with Marge Simpson warning viewers to send any sensitive children to bed early instead of mailing angry letters to the network the next day. Bart’s treehouse is used as a framing device, hence the name “Treehouse of Horror,” with Bart and Lisa trying to outdo each other with spooky stories. Homer is eavesdropping after a successful night of trick-or-treating. Lisa tells the first story, “Bad Dream House,” a parody of haunted house movies in general, but with a few obvious references to “Poltergeist” (1982). The house having been built on an ancient Native-American burial ground and the house being sucked into an inter-dimensional vortex at the conclusion. Bart tells the next story, “Hungry Are the Damned,” which alludes to “To Serve Man,” a celebrated episode of “The Twilight Zone” (1959 – 1964), and introduces Kang & Kodos, one-eyed aliens with tentacles who slobber constantly. This extra-terrestrial duo would become a staple of these Halloween specials. Lisa tells the final story, “The Raven,” an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe poem of the same name, narrated by James Earl Jones. Bart compares the story to the original “Friday the 13th” (1980) in that “It’s pretty tame by today’s standards.” A quote I use often when putting a classic film into context if I suspect that I am conversing with someone who has a short attention span. I would also have to describe this episode as being pretty tame by today’s standards. Bart and Lisa, being desensitized to violence, are not unnerved by these tales of terror, but Homer is freaked out and reluctant to sleep with the lights off. His child-like innocence is what makes Homer Simpson so endearing despite of how crude he can be at times.
For “Treehouse of Horror II,” Marge knows that she is wasting her time when warning viewers about the episode’s inappropriate content. Homer, Bart, and Lisa eat too much candy and have nightmares as a result. Lisa’s nightmare, “The Monkey’s Paw,” poked fun at The Simpsons immense popularity in early 1990s and features the return of Kang & Kodos, attempting world domination. “The Twilight Zone” is parodied once more in Bart’s nightmare. “The Bart Zone” has Bart wishing people into the cornfield if they don’t think happy thoughts just like Bill Mumy’s character in “It’s a Good Life.” Since no one would dare to defy Bart, a haggard Krusty the Clown must perform his show live 24/7. Homer’s nightmare, “If I Only Had a Brain,” has Mr. Burns emulating Dr. Frankenstein, removing the brain of Homer and placing it into a mechanical monster. The episode ends with Homer waking up to find that the head of Mr. Burns has been sown onto his shoulder. A memorable moment.
“Treehouse of Horror III” might be my favorite of them all. Instead of Marge, Homer opens the episode, doing his best impression of Alfred Hitchcock. A Halloween party is used as framing device and it is just as humorous as any of the stories. “Clown Without Pity,” as told by Lisa, is a parody of “The Twilight Zone” episode “Living Doll.” You know, the one with Talking Tina. Homer buys a last minute birthday present for Bart. A talking Krusty the Clown doll. Unfortunately, someone has set the doll to evil and it tries to kill Homer multiple times, but the two become bosom buddies in the end. Grandpa Simpson tells the next story, “King Homer,” a re-imagining of “King Kong” (1933), which is much better than the 1978 remake and far more concise than the 2005 remake. Ned Flanders, dressed as a zombie, surprises everyone at the party, scaring the heck out of Grandpa Simpson and giving Bart the inspiration for “Dial “Z” for Zombies.” Bart and Lisa attempt to resurrect their deceased cat, Snowball I, but they inadvertently raise the dead in a nearby cemetery. Just like in “Return of the Living Dead” (1985), these zombies are hungry for brains, so they instinctively leave Homer alone. Kang & Kodos make a cameo, watching the zombie apocalypse from the safety of a flying saucer. Homer must vanquish the reanimated corpses of George Washington and William Shakespeare. Why they were buried in Springfield is anyone’s guess, but The Simpsons could do no wrong at this point in time.
“Treehouse of Horror IV” is hosted by Bart in the style of Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” (1969 – 1973). Another timeless episode. In “The Devil and Homer Simpson,” Homer sells his soul for a donut to the devil himself, who turns out to be Ned Flanders. Homer goes on trial and President Richard Nixon serves on the jury of the damned even though was still alive at the time. Thanks to Marge, Homer’s eternal soul is saved, but as a punishment, the devil turns his head into a delicious donut, making him irresistible to the local police force. They kept up the tradition of lampooning “The Twilight Zone” with “Terror at 5 & 1/2 Feet,” a parody of “Terror at 20,000 Feet,” an episode which starred the great William Shatner. A gremlin is trying to sabotage the school bus, but only Bart sees the nasty little creature and no one believes him. There is also a gremlin outside of Kang & Kodos’ flying saucer, but their cameo is usually cut because of time constraints when this episode airs in syndication. “Bart Simpson’s Dracula” was inspired by a recent adaptation of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Mr. Burns is the vampire count and his unusual hairstyle was the same as Gary Oldman’s. Waylon Smithers is his R.M. Renfield. Bart is turned into a vampire, but it turns out that all of The Simpsons except for Lisa are vampires and they end the episode by humming “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” just like in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” This doesn’t seem so peculiar nowadays as many people start celebrating Christmas as soon as Halloween is over. The 55 days of Christmas.
“Treehouse of Horror V” continued The Simpson then uncanny ability to provide laughs year after year without fail. “Treehouse of Horror V” was also the first time that there were no overt references to “The Twilight Zone.” Marge is once again warning viewers about the horrors that await them, but Bart interrupts with an homage to “The Outer Limits” (1963 – 1965). “The Shinning” was a parody of Stephen King’s “The Shining” with Homer as the Jack Torrance character, the caretaker of a hotel who loses his mind and attempts to murder his family. “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy” has been replaced with “No TV and no beer making Homer go crazy.” Groundskeeper Willie comes to their rescue, but he gets an axe in the back for his troubles. In “Time and Punishment,” Homer travels back to the time of the dinosaurs and inadvertently alters history, making Ned Flanders the unquestioned lord and master of the world. Groundskeeper Willie comes to his rescue, but he gets an axe in the back for his troubles. Because the timeline has been altered, Kang & Kodos are turned into Mr. Peabody & Sherman from “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show” (1959 – 1964). In “Nightmare Cafeteria,” the faculty of Springfield Elementary become cannibals and start eating the students. Groundskeeper Willie comes to their rescue, but he gets an axe in the back for his troubles. Groundskeeper Willie then admits to being bad at saving people before he dies. Luckily, it all turns out be a nightmare had by Bart. But, there is a mysterious fog that is turning people inside out.
Starting with “Treehouse of Horror VI,” there were no more framing devices used in these episodes. Krusty the Clown plays The Headless Horseman in the intro. “Attack of the Fifty Foot Eyesores” was the first story in any of these episodes that I would qualify as a miss. Billboard mascots come to live and run amuck. Kang & Kodos cameo as hitchhikers. It’s not too bad, I just don’t find it to be a classic. My opinion only. I’m sure that some fans really enjoyed this segment and I wouldn’t argue with them. Maybe my standards are just too high? “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace” got things back on track with a parody of “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984) featuring Groundskeeper Willie as a stand-in for Freddy Krueger. It may be morbid, but the dead body of Martin Prince being wheeled into a kindergarten class off camera and the sound of screaming five year olds is an absolute riot. “Homer3” brings back “The Twilight Zone” parodies. The inspiration was clearly the “Little Girl Lost” episode, which also influenced “Poltergeist.” Homer enters a 3D parallel universe to avoid his rude sisters-in-law, Patty & Selma. Homer and Bart were animated with CGI. This was a big deal in way back 1995. Homer is then sucked into oblivion, which was a melancholy way to end the episode. But, he does find his way to an erotic bakery, so I suppose that it was a happy ending of sorts. I don’t know, I just found it to be a downer.
“Treehouse of Horror VII” has the least elaborate intro, Homer setting himself on fire while trying light a jack-o-lantern. In “The Thing and I,” it is revealed that Bart has an evil twin, Hugo, who lives in the attic and eats fish heads. They were conjoined twins, separated and birth, but Dr. Hibbert botched the procedure. It turns out that the evil twin was and always has been Bart, so now he must live in the attic and eat fish heads while Hugo rejoins the family. In “The Genesis Tub,” Lisa creates her own micro-civilization by leaving a tooth in soda. Bart becomes their sworn enemy, so they shrink Lisa down to their size, hoping that she will protect them. This episode was referenced in “Simpsons Already Did It,” an episode of “South Park” (1997 – ). In “Citizen Kang,” (also known “Mr. Kang Goes to Washington” on the DVD) Homer is abducted by Kang & Kodos. This was the first time since “Treehouse of Horror II” that the extra-terrestrials played prominent roles, impersonating President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole in time for the 1996 Presidential Election. No one wants to throw their vote away on a third party candidate such as Ross Perot, so Kang is elected president. But, as humanity is enslaved as forced to build a death-ray, Homer is proud to let everyone know that he voted for Kodos.
The Fox censor was greatly apposed to “Treehouse of Horror VIII,” but no worries as the rating insignia itself brutally murdered him with a dagger so to shut him up. “The Homega Man” was a parody of “The Omega Man” (1971), a film adaptation of the novel “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson. Homer is the last man on Earth, or so he thinks. The nuclear holocaust has turned many of the residents of Springfield into flesh-eating mutants. Happily, the rest of The Simpsons also survived because the led paint in their house served as a makeshift bomb shelter. This is another episode that sometimes omits the Kang & Kodos cameo when airing in syndication. “Fly vs. Fly” is more like “The Fly” (1958) with Vincent Price than “The Fly” (1986) with Jeff Goldblum. Homer buys a teleportation device from Professor Frink at a yard sale, which leads to Bart switching heads with a common housefly. Homer and Marge are oblivious to the fact that this human / fly hybrid is not their son, but Lisa, being a smart cookie, restores Bart to his natural state. Other than introducing some of the episodes, Marge is usually short-changed in these Halloween specials. She never had much to do until “Easy Bake Coven,” which had The Simpsons as part of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Marge is accused of practicing witchcraft and she is actually guilty. She is a witch, along with her sisters, Patty & Selma. But, is it really that much of a surprise that Patty & Selma are witches? The three sisters go searching for children to eat, but they settle for some tasty homemade treats. The origin of trick-or-treating.
If you grew up with The Simpsons, then these episodes hold a special place in your heart. Perhaps the show suffered a slight decline in quality in later seasons, but no one could deny that these first eight “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are timeless classics even if the first two are pretty tame by today‘s standards.
– Dr. Rochester