(originally aired October 25, 1990)
While I was still sitting through the show’s later seasons, what always killed me most was the decline in quality of the Treehouse of Horror specials. They were always a season highlight: for one special show a year, the Simpsons universe’s rules and regulations would be broken down, and the family be thrust into a spooky situation or classic horror parody to fend for themselves. The show would riff on scary story conventions, but also had the potential of being genuinely creepy and unsettling themselves. I love the idea for many reasons, a main one being these specials bring the Simpsons back to their cartoon ancestry roots: having characters so established that they can be put into any situation, and the entertainment is seeing how they react. As we love seeing Daffy Duck attempt to be Robin Hood, we love to see the Simpsons fend off a zombie apocalypse. They used to be the greatest episodes of the season, but when it got to the point where they would be parodying Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Transformers, two things not even remotely Halloween-y, it got pretty depressing. These segments must be hard to write, no doubt, but it was always worth it.
This very first one starts with a brief disclaimer from Marge on the show’s off-color content, which she claims to have totally washed her hands of. Not only is it a great mimicry of the similarly opened original Frankenstein, it refers directly to its audience who might not be prepared for a silly primetime cartoon delving into serious horror parodies. We then get into the show proper, featuring Bart and Lisa in the treehouse telling scary stories (the only Treehouse of Horror to actually use the treehouse). First up is “Bad Dream House,” where the Simpson family move into a suspiciously cheap mansion. Come to find its price point is due to it being built on an Indian burial ground, so they must endure bleeding walls, floating objects, and a brief possession or two. Homer is unmoving in his assertion that these minor quibbles are worth the great deal, but finding the basement cemetery is the last straw. In one of my favorite Simpsons scenes ever, he angrily calls the realtor to yell at him about it, then his rage subsides and he retorts, “Well that’s not my recollection!” He then hangs up and says, “He said he mentioned it five or six times.” The segment ends with a nice subversion where the house reveals consciousness to the family, but chooses to implode upon itself rather than live with them. The Simpsons were the unwelcome guests; Lisa surmises, “It chose to destroy itself rather than live with us. One can’t help but feel a little rejected.”
The second segment has our family abducted by Rigelians Kang and Kodos. Before they were annual regulars to the show with normally nefarious purposes, they quite cordially offer the Simpsons a fantastic banquet, but Lisa remains suspicious of their true intentions. It’s a great “To Serve Man” riff when Lisa reveals the “How to Cook Humans” cookbook, but after a back and forth swiping of dust between her and Kang, reveals “How to Cook For Humans,” “How to Cook Forty Humans” and finally “How to Cook For Forty Humans,” revealing them to benevolent all along. It’s one of those hilarious-in-hindsight bait-and-switches: why were the aliens so suspicious sounding to begin with? So impressed by how much weight they’d gained and the chef droolingly telling Homer his wife is “quite a dish,” none of it makes any sense, but that’s why it’s so funny. Of course Kang and Kodos would become firm members of the Simpsons canon, for good reason: their grotesque, classically alien design, with tentacle appendages and giant heads encased in helmets, booming, self-competent voices, and their braying evil laughter. Perhaps they were kindly all along until meeting the Simpsons, and a simple misunderstanding turned them to wanted to enslave the human race. Nice going, Lisa.
The final segment is an odd one: a retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic poem, “The Raven,” featuring Homer as the visualized narrator (with James Earl Jones actually narrating), and Bart as the eponymous raven. What seems like a tedious exercise on paper is actually quite riveting, from the rousing score and the wonderfully choreography of the sequence. David Silverman does an amazing job as usual spicing up the segment, visualizing ghostly hands caressing Homer’s face, odd sweeping scenes of a ponderous nature, and cutting to rise the tension between Homer and the Bart raven. Dan Castellaneta also deserves credit for his performance, keeping with the intensity and passion of the read, but always remaining true to Homer. The seriousness of the sequence eventually gives way to a brief silly end where Homer goes into a rage trying to catch the bird, but it becomes his own undoing as it comes to a close. I always praise Silverman for his direction, so I apologize for overlooking the other great Simpsons directors. Wes Archer and Rich Moore, who did the other two segments, are fantastic in their own right, doing fine work for this series, and others.
I like how we end with Bart mentioning how the poem wasn’t scary, and Lisa justifying that since it was written over a hundred years ago, maybe people were easier to scare. It really reflects with the Halloween specials; the bit with the family trying to kill each other in the first segment was a bit rough, but compared to how much darker and bloodier these shows would become, this truly is tame by today’s standards, as Bart puts it. Later we would delve further into the macabre greatness that Halloween specials could be (and scary Halloween credit names too), but this is a grand first outing signaling things to come. Spoooooky things.
Tidbits and Quotes
- A long-deserted Halloween tradition we first see here are the scary tombstone names. They’d get funnier as years went on, until the writers got sick of writing them. I do like the one for “Casper the Friendly Boy” though.
- I do like how James Earl Jones is in all three segments, like he’s the weaving thread for the three stories. Also that his roles increase in size, from one line as the mover in the first one, Serak the Preparer, a minor role in the second, and the main event as the narrator in the third.
- I remember loving the vortex gag as a kid. For some reason, I thought I remembered Homer thinking it was some kind of new-age dishwasher. Guess I imagined it.
- Kinda subtle bit with Marge telling the kids to get their coats, and they just float onto them.
- The house seducing the family to kill each other is pretty grim. Perhaps the disclaimer really was necessary. And why the hell would Marge need THAT big of a knife to spread mayonnaise on her sandwich?
- I love how the house physically emotes by changing in color, light and shape with its dialogue. Kudos to Wes Archer for that. See? I can compliment other directors.
- I know the show has two gags with Homer pouring the entire can of gasoline onto the grill before turning it on. This one has a mini-inferno go off, but I know another show does the same thing but the grill turns on normally. I forget which episode it is though… guess I’ll find out soon enough.
- Brilliant glossing over of the language barrier between humans and aliens by Kang: “I am actually speaking Rigelian; by an astonishing coincidence, both of our languages are exactly the same.”
- I love the sequence where the family derides Kang and Kodos’ crowning achievement that is Pong. The aliens get so defensive, while even Marge finds it hard to sound genuine in her patronization.
- Homer kind of mirrors the suspected worrywart audience, while Marge (the writers) dismiss the show as “just children’s stories.” Then he’s frightened by a bird out the window. Classic.