Welcome to a horror-filled month of Cartoon Crackdown: where I talk cartoons and animation but with a Halloween slant this time since it’s October!
This past Sunday The Simpsons returned with the twenty-fourth installment of its long running series of Halloween specials, “The Treehouse of Horror,” and frankly it STUNK. Sure it was occasionally amusing, but the plots were tired, the jokes were lazy, and the opening directed by Guillermo Del Toro is irritatingly self-celebratory as he rubs his entire filmography (both horror and non-horror) in the face of the audience. Being a huge fan of these specials, I was very disappointed and thought it’d be a cool idea to dampen my sorrow with a stroll down memory lane complete with some must-watch “Treehouse of Horror” stories from back in the series’ heyday.
“BART’S NIGHTMARE” (TREEHOUSE OF HORROR II)
A parody of the great Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life,” this segment showcases an omnipotent Bart Simpson as he utilizes reality-bending powers for world domination and his own self-amusement. Homer, tired of being held under Bart’s sway, attempts to dispose of Bart only to find himself fall prey to his son’s devilish imagination brought instantly into reality. Seeing the childish Bart manifest his every whim with godlike demonstrations of power is really entertaining, but the real heart of this story is the relationship between Bart and Homer. While it’s one that’s always been steeped in animosity, “Bart’s Nightmare” takes the time to develop it beyond that conflict and go down a warmer, complex avenue in its final act. Add to that the wonderful ending involving the exact nature of this fantasy scenario being “nightmarish” for Bart, and you have one of the first true home runs that “The Treehouse of Horror” specials managed to pull off.
“HOMER3” (TREEHOUSE OF HORROR VI)
Another example of the writing staff’s love for The Twilight Zone, “Homer3” satirizes the famous episode “Little Girl Lost” which involved a little girl falling through a portal and losing herself inside a strange ethereal dimension. This Simpsons take on the story casts Homer as the hapless victim of a botched attempt to avoid a visiting Patty and Selma that results in him being trapped inside a crazy three-dimensional world. The jokes in here (particularly the Tron gag halfway through) are pretty spot-on, but the show-stopping element of this story is its usage of computer-animation to create a 3D Homer inside a computer-esque grid. For a 1995 television cartoon, the animation is astoundingly fluid and keeps the 2D character designs alive despite being translated to a three-dimensional form. All in all, this is a beautifully animated, hilariously written story and definitely the crowning achievement of the sixth “Treehouse of Horror” installment.
“THE SHINNING” (TREEHOUSE OF HORROR V)
Satirizing a horror classic like Stephen King’s The Shining is no easy task but it’s especially tricky to do a complete take on it in just seven minutes. Thankfully, The Simpsons brought their A-game and crafted perhaps the single most hilarious entry on this list. Casting Homer into the famous Jack Nicholson role, “The Shinning” places the Simpsons family in a foreboding mountain hotel as caretakers working for owner Montgomery Burns. Discovering that there is no beer or television on the premises (due to an ill-conceived attempt by Burns to ensure productivity), Homer goes berserk and attempts to murder his family with an ax. Pitch perfect in its construction, “The Shinning” is jam packed with stellar jokes from start to finish, and the inclusion of Groundskeeper Willie as the Scatman Crothers character from the 1980 film is genius casting. Satirically on point and gut-bustingly hysterical, “The Shinning” is a perfect example of why The Simpsons was so highly regarded in the first place.
“TIME AND PUNISHMENT” (TREEHOUSE OF HORROR V)
The Simpsons‘ Halloween specials are best known for their fantastical and non-canon status: imbuing the writers with the freedom necessary to tell all the craziest stories that they’ve ever wanted to tell. Reflecting that spirit more than any other “Treehouse of Horror” segment is “Time and Punishment,” a Butterfly Effect style story that tirelessly ping pongs around, space, time, and even genre in order to produce as many laughs as possible. After badly attempting to fix a broken toaster, Homer discovers it’s a time machine and is transported back to the Prehistoric Era. After accidentally killing an insect, he’s horrified to find that the future has been altered into a smile-driven dystopia run by cheerful dictator Ned Flanders. Determined to put things right, Homer jumps repeatedly back and forth in time: periodically murdering other prehistoric creatures and hoping the future changes back to normal. While the story itself is clever and Homer’s mucking about in the past is hilarious, I most adore the many different futures that Homer creates: including worlds with nods to Gulliver’s Travels, Alice in Wonderland, and even the earlier “Shinning” segment. Bolstered by an impressive display of imagination, and a wonderful cameo from James Earl Jones, “Time and Punishment” is absolute gold and should serve as a reminder to the current Simpsons crew regarding what a good Halloween special should entail.