86. Treehouse of Horror IV

(originally aired October 28, 1993)
The first three Halloween shows are fantastic, but number four is the first one that really knocked it out of the park. It encapsulates all that a Treehouse of Horror special should be: beautifully directed, have suspense and chills, all with snarky humor throughout. These are fantasies, and thus you should be aiming to do stuff you could never do in the show proper. They should be good, damn spooky fun.

No segment better encapsulates this than our first, “The Devil vs. Homer Simpson,” if not the best Halloween short, then at least among the top 3. Impulsively wishing to sell his soul for a donut, Homer is approached by Satan himself, who is none other than Ned Flanders. I really want to know who thought of this idea; it’s absolutely brilliant. The Devil, at least in the context of making deals with unsuspecting mortals, should have this facade of niceness to him, but be menacing when necessary, so Flanders is really the perfect choice (“It’s always the one you least suspect!”) Harry Shearer makes Ned sound the part too; you believe he’s this different shade of our favorite neighbor-eeno. The entire segment looks absolutely gorgeous: the fiery vortex in the kitchen, Homer’s dizzying descent into Hell, Devil Flanders’ true form as a monstrous devil (reminiscent of Chernabog from Fantasia.) On top of all this, the show is hilarious. Homer is fortunate enough to find a small loophole in his contract, and gloats right in Lucifer’s face. We have the infamous Jury of the Damned, including Richard Nixon, who at the time wasn’t dead yet (only six months away though, so kinda weird,) and one of Lionel Hutz’s best appearances, and since he only has about three lines, that’s saying a lot.

“Terror at 5 1/2 Feet” is the weakest of the two, but that’s only because it’s sandwiched between two powerhouses. It’s pretty great though; like the famous Twilight Zone short, Bart becomes increasingly paranoid that a gremlin is dismantling the school bus from the outside. Even in such a small environment, the direction remains just as intense, with appropriate flashes of lightning and dramatic angles and push-ins toward the window where the monster may or may not be wrecking havoc. There’s particularly great animation on Bart as he becomes a twitchy, unhinged mess over the situation, especially when he desperately tries to be vindicated by Milhouse. I also love that they retained elements of the source material short even though it makes no sense, like the airplane window shade and the pressurized cabin. I also think this is the first appearance of Uter, the giddy German exchange student (just in time for him to be eaten in next year’s Halloween show.) In the end, Bart is proven right, but to Skinner, that don’t matter (“Right or wrong, your behavior was still disruptive, young man. Perhaps spending the remainder of your life in a madhouse will teach you some manners.”) Sometimes the best way to end one of these shorts is with a punch in the face. Or someone get decapitated (“Hidely-ho, Bart!”)

“Bart Simpson’s Dracula” is pretty much just as masterful as the first segment. Mr. Burns lures the Simpsons into his spooky castle, clearly nothing suspicious, and Bart and Lisa discover he is in fact a vampire. Again, the direction is spectacular; almost every shot in the episode feels dynamic and suspense-building. It also may be the funniest segment, a lot due to everyone’s complete obliviousness to Burns being a vampire, despite increasingly glaring clues (“Dad, this is blood!” “Correction: free blood!”) A lot of the greatness of these shows is managing to keep the dramatic aspect of these shows going while cramming in as many jokes as possible. Bart smashing through Lisa’s window and going to bite her is kind of intense, but it’s put between a whole mess of jokes. The show ends in kind; Homer kills Burns (first staking his groin, then his heart), but it turns out he wasn’t the head vampire. Marge was, and the entire family sans Lisa are vampires too. Right before they go into the kill, the show inexplicably ends with an homage to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Why? No reason. Simple holiday mix-up. It’s an unbelievable show, one that all future Halloween specials are now forced to live up to. Of course, can’t believe it took me so long to get to this, a lot of thanks goes to super director David Silverman. That man is, to quote Homer, pure genius!

Tidbits and Quotes
-The very last wrap around, and a great one, with Bart posing as a sub for Rod Serling in Night Gallery. Marge puts in her traditional Halloween warning, and we’re treated to many parodies of famous paintings, from the obvious (Lisa as Munch’s “The Scream”) to a bit more obscure (Homer in Jacques-Louise David’s “Death of Marat” holding a grocery list instead of a dying note.) Sweet, sweet candy for those who have taken their share of art history courses.
– Great donut fashion show daydream, and reveal that Homer seems to have dozed off while standing up in the break room. Narcolepsy? Also great is Homer’s anger toward his past self for having eaten his emergency donut (“Bastard! He’s always one step ahead!”)
– The genius of dim-witted Homer: he appears to have outsmarted the Devil, if he doesn’t finish the donut, he’s in the clear. Throw out the donut, toss it in a woodchipper, chuck it in the ocean. Nope. He puts it in the fridge, albeit with warning post-its, but a sleepwalking Homer eats it anyway.
– Bart and Devil Flanders’ nonchalant greetings to each other is great. As is Flanders’ annoyance at Lisa’s insistence on a fair trial (“ Oh, you Americans with your due process and fair trials. This is always so much easier in Mexico.”)
– The Hell sequence is brilliant, and I only wish we saw more. Homer getting chopped to bits is pretty brutal, but hilarious nonetheless.
– As mentioned, Lionel Hutz is absolutely hysterical, showing up in the show combing his hair with a fork (“I watched Matlock in a bar last night. The sound wasn’t on, but I think I got the gist of it.”) Later he backs himself into a corner by defining a contract as unbreakable, then runs off to the bathroom. When Marge checks on him later on, of course the window is open with wind blowing through.
– Strangely enough, Blackbeard steals the show amongst the jurors, from being forced to sit in a high chair (“This chair be high, says I!”) and being exposed as illiterate (“‘Tis true. My debauchery was my way of compensatin’!”)
– Great twist ending regarding the wedding photo, and of course, spectacular big finish with Donut Head Homer.
– Love the half-assed Krusty trading cards: Krusty visits relatives in Annapolis, Maryland, Krusty poses for trading card photo.
– Again, at this point I might as well just run off all the great jokes: Skinner on the bus (“I’m riding the bus today because Mother hid my car keys to punish me for talking to a woman on the phone. She was right to do it,”) Otto running Moleman’s AMC Gremlin off the road, which comes to a stop before a tree, and then violently explodes, Ralph saying “You’re deceptive,” Kang’s Charles Nelson Reilly nervous murmur finding a gremlin is dismantling their ship, “Now I’ve gotten word that a child is using his imagination, and I’ve come to put a stop to it,” “Me mule wouldn’t work in the mud. So I had to put seventeen bullets in ‘er!” Homer driving by during the climax with all his stolen marina goods, and Nelson’s well-timed “Ha-ha!” as Bart is being hauled off.
– As I said, everyone is incredibly dense regarding Burns being a vampire: the police destroying the Egyptian wing of the museum, the Simpsons being told to wash their necks (Homer proudly holds up a filth-ridden rag,) and Burns flat-out admitting his plans over the intercom accidentally (“Oh, son-of-a-bi-“) Also, great animation with Burns’ shadow’s independent acting. A lot of the acting is so great, through the whole show, but the third act has a lot of it. Every character is so full of life, so animated, if you will.
– This is getting too long, it happens when the episode is so great. Let’s finish this off: Yes, I Am A Vampire, with forward by Steve Allen, Bart’s Three Stooges impersonations, the effects of Homer’s drinking (“Now let’s go back to that… building… thingy, where our beds and TV… is,”) Abe wanting to stake Bart before realizing he’s a vampire, “Kill my boss? Do I dare to live out the American dream?,” “Super fun happy slide!” (with Homer’s excited elbow movements,) and Burns coming back alive briefly just to fire Homer.

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7 responses to “86. Treehouse of Horror IV

  1. I’ve always given the edge to “Terror at 5 1/2 Feet” because — so far as I can see — it has roughly as many jokes as the other two segments (i.e., SO MANY) but is much scarier. That ending is one of the most disturbing images in all Simpsons history.

    Still, you make a great case for the Dracula parody, which I’ve always seen as the weak link of this Treehouse. It really just gets better and funnier every time I watch it. (I mean, honestly, a crotch joke that really works! What are the odds?) IV is such a classic; what’s especially impressive is that they came back and topped themselves the following year.

  2. Overrated, imo.

  3. – Bart falling for the Super Fun Happy Slide is classic (“I know I shouldn’t, but when am I going to be here again?”)

    – Not only does Burns never remember Homer, he doesn’t know Bart, either (“Well, if it isn’t little… uh, boy.”)

    – Burns on the intercom deserves a full transcript:
    Burns: “Welcome, come in. Ah, fresh victims for my ever-growing army of the undead.”
    Smithers: “Sir, you have to let go of the button.”
    Burns: “Oh, son of a bi-!” [Gets cut off from the door opening.]

  4. Valerie Cunningham

    “We have the infamous Jury of the Damned, including Richard Nixon, who at the time wasn’t dead yet (only six months away though, so kinda weird,) ”

    It’s not weird. Considering his Presidency and how much trouble he got for Watergate, Nixon might have been in the Jury of the Damned as part of his own deal with Devil Flanders (remember the line, “Hey, I did a favor for you!”?). Which means that when he died, Devil Flanders would have gotten his soul forever.

  5. Marge: “Bart, stop pestering Satan!” So much to love in this episode.

    • Well, we had to wait until “138th Episode Spectacular” to see that bit – as well as the one with Hutz and the empty pizza box. 😉

      Also, if “Mmm… forbidden donut” isn’t the greatest “Mmm…” of all, then it’s got to be in the top 3.

  6. The first act, of course, is a parody of Steven Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”

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