Thursday, November 4, 2010

Halloween’s Not Over Till The Simpsons Say So

By Chris Dimick

Don’t throw your Lady Gaga inspired meat-dress costume on the grill just yet. Halloween isn’t officially over until the credits roll on this Sunday’s new The Simpsons Halloween Special –Treehouse of Horror XXI.

For the last 21 years, The Simpsons have been bringing the funny to our favorite Celtic holiday in the form of their outstanding Treehouse of Horror specials.
Not considered part of the regular Simpsons storyline canon, the Treehouse of Horror episodes give the show’s staff a chance to tear our favorite yellow-skinned family from reality and place them in spooky, scary and usually hilarious fright stories.

Many horror fans, myself included, adore the Treehouse of Horror episodes since they regularly spoof beloved horror movies, TV shows, comic books, literature and pop culture.
The Halloween shows are split into three self-contained tales of tony terror, placing The Simpsons characters in such past horror stories as The Fly, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Night of the Living Dead.

These are traditionally some of the best Simpsons episodes. The writers go all out in their scary tales, packing each segment with great pop culture references, inside horror movie jokes, and general zaniness that can’t be done in the usual reality-based Simpsons world.

Personally, I gave up on The Simpsons regular season episodes several years ago. The show started as a witty, fresh, bitingly satirical comedy grounded in human emotion and real stories when it premiered in 1989, but has gradually drifted through its 22-year run into a tired, cliché, over-the-top lame fest that now tries to be more “crazy” than “smart.”

I once worshiped you Simpsons. In fact as a kid, my family would tape every episode of the show and watch it over and over and over and over. The show was at its best in the early to mid-1990s with writers like Conan O’Brien and producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. Today, The Simpsons is a shell of its former self, and like a once great limping race horse, needs to be put down Old Yeller style. For the fans’ sake.

That said, I never miss each season’s Halloween “Treehouse of Horror” episode, this year marking the 21st such special (There have been 22 The Simpsons seasons, but they didn’t do a Halloween episode their first year). I’d be fine with parent network FOX canceling the regular season, and just have the Simpsons team make only these specials every holiday. For once a year, I fall in love with the Simpsons again on Halloween.

These episodes are supposed to be crazy, unrealistic, and pop-culture laden. What fails in the regular season triumphs in the context of a Halloween show – even if it is aired long after most front-porch pumpkins have begun to slump into that rotting, depressed smush-face look.

So, what gives, Matt Groening? Why show a Halloween episode days after the holiday when the world has already moved on to thoughts of stuffed turkey carcasses and Santa Claus’s all seeing eyes?
It wasn’t always this way. The Simpsons started out showing their holiday special before Halloween, along with the rest of the sane world.

But when FOX landed coverage of Major League Baseball’s playoffs and World Series in 2000 (a win for the network, loss for baseball fans) it meant that The Simpsons would be pre-empted for several weeks by baseball games in October.

At first I was horrified by this, thinking that The Simpsons staff would just stop producing Treehouse of Horror episodes. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, and the terrific tradition continued… just airing after Halloween.

Personally I’ve grown to appreciate The Simpsons airing their annual Treehouse of Horror’s after Halloween. TV during the Halloween season is overcrowded with viewing choices to celebrate the holiday. Between the History Channel’s always excellent retrospective on Halloween’s origins to AMC and Turner Classic Movies’ nonstop horror movie marathons, Treehouse of Horror would be just another Halloween-themed show.

Saving the episode until after all the Halloween attention has calmed makes it more special.
It is like sticking your head in a seemingly wrapper-only filled Trick-or-Treat pillowcase and finding a succulent Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup among the fray. Just when you thought the party was over… the band plays a second encore.

In celebration of over 20 years of mixing comedy and horror, and adding extra helpings of blood-covered joy to my favorite holiday of the year, the RDHP presents the Top Ten Treehouse of Horror segments… many of which are based on horror/sci-fi movies, TV shows, and books.

[As a reminder, don’t forget to watch The Simpsons’ 21st Treehouse of Horror episode this Sunday, Nov. 7 at 8E/7C on FOX! (A replaying of last year’s 20th Halloween special comes before it at 7:30E/6:30C!)]


Bart’s Nightmare
Treehouse of Horror II -- 1991

In a spoof of the Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” Springfield is held in a grip of terror by Bart, who has omnipotent mental powers. Bart turns whoever is not happy and content with his “rule” into a grotesque being, and even history is changed to suit Bart’s pleasure. When Homer refuses to turn off a football game so that Bart can watch "The Krusty the Clown Show" (which has been running for 346 consecutive hours), Bart transports Homer into the football stadium in place of the ball for a field goal kick. When Homer tries to kill him for this, Bart turns him into a jack-in-the-box. Is a father’s love the only way to end this horror?

Why it’s a favorite: Treehouse of Horror has spoofed many Twilight Zone episodes over the years, and with good reason. The show featured brilliant, terrifying stories that are a blast to lampoon. As one of my favorite TV shows of all time, it’s a blast to see any Twilight Zone episode get Simpsonfied. This story works perfectly with mischievous Bart as the all powerful ruler.

King Homer
Treehouse of Horror III -- 1992

In a black and white style segment parodying the film King Kong, Marge joins Mr. Burns and Smithers on an expedition to Ape Island to find the legendary King Homer. After landing on the island, Mr. Burns, Smithers, and Marge stealthily approach a native tribe, but are spotted due to Marge’s hair protruding over the bushes. Marge is sacrificed to King Homer, but is saved when Burns’ group gasses the giant ape. Homer is brought back to Springfield and placed on Broadway as the 8th Wonder of the World. But he soon escapes and embarks on a rampage… at least until he gets tired of all that exercise.

Why it’s a favorite: King Kong is such an iconic horror film, it is great to see it earn recognition in a Simpsons spoof. At this point in the Simpsons run, it was almost an honor to get a mention in the show… an acknowledgment of one’s greatness. This was the case with King Homer, which was in fact a love letter of sorts by Matt Groening to the film. In parts, this is a shot for shot remake of the original, mixed in with hilarious jokes. A must see of any Kong fan.

Terror at 5½ Feet
Treehouse of Horror IV -- 1993

Another Twilight Zone parody, this time of the William Shatner classic “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” After having a nightmare in which he is killed in a bus crash, Bart rides the bus to school one rainy morning. He panics when he sees a green gremlin on the side of the bus loosening the lug nuts on one of the tires. Bart unsuccessfully tries to convince the other passengers of the danger.

Why it’s a favorite: Again a very accurate parody of a beloved Twilight Zone episode. It is just hilarious to see such a scary premise and TZ episode be reinvented with dead-on humor and comedic grace. Treehouse of Horror IV arrived at the start of perhaps The Simpsons best season, which premiered in 1993. The show had hit its stride, and had great writing talent on board. The best in the business at the time. A classic segment in a classic episode of a classic season.

The Shinning
Treehouse of Horror V -- 1994

No TV and no beer make Homer go crazy. The Simpsons learn this the hard way in this parody of the Stephen King/Stanley Kubrick masterpiece movie “The Shining.”
The Simpsons go to Mr. Burns' mansion in the mountains to become its caretakers. Before he leaves, Mr. Burns cuts the cable television wire and removes the beer, believing that this will ensure hard work from the family. While there, Groundskeeper Willie discovers that Bart has the power to read his thoughts ("the Shinning") and that if Homer goes insane like all the previous caretakers, he should use this to call him. The absence of his two favorite things sends Homer into an insane rage. It doesn’t help that a ghostly Moe tells Homer he must kill his family in order for him to give Homer a beer.

Why it’s a favorite: Another hilarious, spot on parody of a beloved horror movie classic. Treehouse of Horror V and VI are by far my favorite episodes of the series. All three segments in each episode are just so strikingly clear in their humor, to the point that one feels actually warm inside while watching.

Time and Punishment
Treehouse of Horror V -- 1994

“If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything, because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can't imagine.” This is the advice Abe “Grandpa” Simpson gave Homer on his wedding day. Turns out to be great advice.
While trying to fix a broken toaster, Homer accidentally turns it into a time machine. It transports him to prehistoric times where he realizes that he must be careful because if he affects anything in the past, it could cause changes in the future.
He kills a mosquito before returning to the present and finds a horrific dystopia where Ned Flanders is now a brutal world dictator. Homer travels back in time again to try to set things right. However, he accidentally kills a walking fish (saying “I wish, I wish, I hadn’t killed that fish), and after returning to the present he finds Bart and Lisa are giants who try to “crush that bug that looks like Dad.” This continues on and on, back in forth in time, with hilarious results.

Why it’s a favorite: Not only is this based on a story by one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” it is just really clever. The ways Homer disrupts the past and future are funny, genius, and creative. What a ride through time.

Treehouse of Horror VI -- 1995

Beware the horrors of the [gasp] THIRD DIMENSION in this parody of the Twilight Zone episode “Little Girl Lost”, in which a girl travels through a portal to the 4th dimension.
Patty and Selma visit the Simpsons with two pillow cases full of seashells from their trip to "Sulphur Bay". Trying to avoid the witches, Homer tries to hide in the closet that Bart and Lisa have occupied and refuse to leave on the grounds that they called it first. After failing to find another hiding spot, Homer, desperate to escape his sisters-in-law, looks behind a bookcase and enters a mysterious new world in which everything is in 3D. Homer explores the peculiar area, being depicted as a 3D computer-generated character.
Several reoccurring Simpsons characters, including Professor Frink, try to get him out, but the universe collapses and Homer falls into our three dimensional world. He is seen walking down a live-shot, real street, but learns to love his new dimension when happening upon an erotic cake store.

Why it’s a favorite: Okay, I love the Twilight Zone and the episode this segment is based on. But truly the best part of Homer³ is seeing Homer walking down a real small town street. The effects in this one blew my mind when I saw in 1995, and continue to on each repeat viewing.

The Terror of Tiny Toon
Treehouse of Horror IX -- 1998

Who hasn’t wanted to jump into a cartoon? Bart and Lisa get the chance in a loose parody of the TV show Amazing Stories episode "Remote Control Man." But they soon regret it.
Marge forbids Bart and Lisa from watching the Itchy & Scratchy Halloween special, even going to the lengths of taking the batteries out of the remote control. When Marge leaves, Bart finds a small piece of highly unstable plutonium in Homer's toolbox and hammers it into the remote's battery slot. When they use the remote, the kids actually enter the TV world of Itchy and Scratchy. It’s fun at first, until Itchy & Scratchy get mad at the kids for “laughing at our pain” and start hunting Bart and Lisa through various TV channels.

Why it’s a favorite: Cartoons within a cartoon. Fun. And what is not to love about an episode filled with the ultra-violent Itchy & Scratchy?!

Send in the Clones

Treehouse of Horror XIII -- 2002

A parody of the film Multiplicity, Homer walks into the backyard to lie in his hammock, which soon collapses. He purchases a new one from a passing vendor, who warns him that it carries a curse. Disregarding this, Homer lies down and discovers that the new hammock can produce clones of anyone who rests on it. He creates clone after clone to do his chores and work, but soon discovers that each clone is more stupid than the last (the clones eventually devolve into Family Guy’s Peter Griffin. Slam!) After his clones start getting the real Homer in trouble by their dumb antics, he finds various creative and gory ways to destroy them.

Why it’s a favorite: This is just a fun concept that we’ve all considered… what would it be like to have several clones. Answer, not cool, especially when they start trying to fool around with your spouse. This offers two parts of fun: the first watching the clones mess up Homer's life, and the second watching Homer kill them in hilarious ways.

Stop the World, I Want to Goof Off
Treehouse of Horror XIV -- 2003

Bart and Milhouse (in a parody of the Twilight Zone episode “A Kind of a Stopwatch”) get a stopwatch through an ad in an old comic book magazine that actually allows them to stop time. It's like a true life Zack Morris "Time Out"! They have a blast pulling pranks on Springfieldians, such as pantsing Principal Skinner.
They almost get away with it, but they are outsmarted by Mayor Quimby, who laid ultraviolet powder on the floor at the town meeting where they committed their most recent joke. An angry mob goes after Bart and Milhouse. While they are on the run, they stop time and the watch breaks, causing Bart and Milhouse to be the only two people moving in a world where time has stopped.
They travel the world pranking folks (giving the Pope a wedge and such) but soon become bored and lonely. Can they fix the watch and get back in time!?

Why it’s a favorite: More Twilight Zone love. Whenever Bart and Milhouse get together for tomfoolery, The Simpsons really seems to work. This segment is nonstop fun with all the time pranks, even near the end where the watch, after being tinkered with, magically morphs people into different beings. This is a bright spot among the typically lame early 2000s episodes of The Simpsons.

It's the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse
Treehouse of Horror XIX -- 2008

In this irreverent spoof of the beloved 1960s Charles Schulz classic “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” Halloween special, Milhouse waits in a pumpkin patch for the Grand Pumpkin on Halloween (which Bart made up). Lisa decides to stay with him out of pity. After Lisa sees everyone at school having a Halloween party, she grows tired of waiting and leaves in frustration. Milhouse starts to cry and his tears and childlike belief bring the Grand Pumpkin to life. However, the Pumpkin is appalled to find that his kindred pumpkins are being carved up on Halloween and made into pumpkin bread. He vows revenge on the town. Murderous pumpkin rage sweeps over Springfield.

Why it’s a favorite: A yearly tradition around Halloween is watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” It is by far my favorite Halloween special of all time. This great spoof offers what would happen if indeed the Great Pumpkin did rise up out of the pumpkin patch. He’d be horrified at how we treat his brethren on Halloween! Oh so much cutting and disemboweling! Hilarious!
This episode also features some
great one liners, such as Ralph’s cutting criticism of Millhouse’s beliefs saying “Your God is wrong,” or Homer saying to a group of normal pumpkins, “I’m going to cut you with a hideous face, and make your friends watch.”

Bonus Favorite:

The Raven
Treehouse of Horror I -- 1990

In the third story of the episode, Lisa reads "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe to the Bart and Maggie in their treehouse, while Homer eavesdrops terrified outside. Bart is depicted as the raven in this Simpsons take on the classic Edgar Allen Poe poem. Homer finds himself in the role of the poem's lead character, while Lisa and Maggie are seraphim. Marge appears briefly as a painting of Lenore. James Earl Jones narrates.

Why it's a favorite: Seeing one of my favorite poems, by one of my favorite authors, come to life Simpsons style was thrilling. I’m talking soul-affecting level thrilling when I first saw this as an 11-year-old boy who had recently discovered the thrill that is Edgar Allan Poe.
This segment takes a morbid, depressing poem and adds some good natured humor to it. It remains scary as well. A nice modern day take on a timeless classic.

Treehouse of Horror
Posters, Promos, Comics, and Covers

No comments:

Post a Comment