16. Treehouse of Horror

"This kitchen

“This kitchen could certainly use a woman’s touch.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 25 October 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 27 October 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: part one – John Swartzwelder; part two – Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky; part three – Edgar Allan Poe (and Sam Simon)
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: part one – Steven Dean Moore, Wes Archer; part two – Rich Moore, Steven Dean Moore, Jim Reardon; part three – Jeff Lynch, David Silverman
  • Animation directors: part one – Wes Archer; part two – Rich Moore; part three – David Silverman

In its early years The Simpsons steered well clear of saddling itself with too many cumbersome traditions. There were no annual Christmas episodes, no holiday specials, and no clip shows at all until halfway through the fourth season. The exception was Halloween. Treehouse of Horror would become a regular fixture in the calendar, inspiring some of the most imaginative (and award-winning) moments in the cartoon’s history. The non-canonical template and portmanteau structure were relished by the writing team, who responded with canny and incisive humour of a pedigree surpassing many of the show’s regular episodes. By the end of the decade the format would be delivering diminishing returns. In 1990, however, it crackled with potential.

Plot
Bart and Lisa entertain each other on Halloween with a trio of semi-autobiographical tall tales: ‘Bad Dream House’, in which the Simpsons move into a haunted mansion; ‘Hungry are the Damned’, in which the family are abducted by aliens; and ‘The Raven’, an adaptation of the eponymous poem by Edgar Allan Poe. It’s not so much a plot as a gimmick, and one that makes no concessions whatsoever to the casual viewer. But what it lacks in coherency it more than makes up for in panache. And while the scary stories are neither scary nor stories, enough other stuff is going on to help you just about forget you’re watching something utterly preposterous. 7

Characters
In what must be unique in the history of the show, Treehouse of Horror features no regular cast outside the five members of the Simpson nuclear family. That such a tiny ensemble holds your attention so completely is a triumph both of characterisation and tactics. Had the writers decided to parody not just Halloween but the idea of a Halloween TV special, the episode would probably have ended up incredibly tedious (the usual outcome when you try and spoof a spoof). Instead the homages are laced with credibility thanks to the family forever reacting to abnormal situations by behaving, by and large, as normal. This in turn leads to some very deft humour. Part two is the best example, with Marge cooing over the aliens’ cooking (“Radish rosettes! These are hard to make! They’re a very advanced race”), Homer talking with his mouth full and Lisa quarrelling over semantics. All the while the extraterrestrial trio of Kang, Kodos and Serak the Preparer are simpering and over-reacting (“We did BUILD this spaceship, you know!”) and being impulsive and generally doing everything that pop culture suggests humans do when confronted with aliens. It’s a switcheroo that is simple but inspired.

"To pronounce it correctly I would have to pull out your tongue"

“To pronounce it correctly I would have to pull out your tongue”

Part one is almost as effective, save for the sequence where the family become possessed and start behaving in a parodic fashion, wielding knives and threatening to kill each other. Only in part three does the artifice get completely in the way of the characterisation, and your patience is tried by what is basically an exercise in literary tomfoolery. 8

Locations and design
The Simpsons’ best directors and storyboarders all chipped in for this episode, and it shows. The haunted house is a beauty, with suggestive nooks and sinister crannies alternating with enormous atriums just waiting to be filled with flying objects and sudden wide-angle reveals.

"Get OUT!" "What on earth was that?"

“Get OUT!” “What on earth was that?”

It is other-worldly just enough to fit the episode’s plot, yet homely enough to complement snugly the episode’s characterisations. The aliens’ spaceship is just the same, only this time the setting is very functional and unobtrusive: no flashing lights or winking control panels to dilute the comedy, while the minimal design is a clever contrast with the previous tale. Part three’s drawing room is almost a character in itself, one that bends, distorts and reacts in step with the poetry, ending up a possibly over-giddy kaleidoscope of the gothic and the surreal:

"Distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December"

“Distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December…”

Applause too for the cemetery in the opening credits, home not just to a pounding montage of thunder, lightning, rain, howls, shrieks and shadows, but also a warren of gravestones bearing such names Garfield, The Grateful Dead and…

"I buried Paul."

“I buried Paul.”

It’s a formula that would serve the Halloween shows well into the future. 9

Pardon My Zinger
Up until two-thirds of the way through, this is the funniest episode of The Simpsons to date. Part one is an uninterrupted peal of jokes: Homer’s reaction to the ghostly voice telling them to get out (“Probably just the house settling”), Marge noting the blood seeping down the cooker (“This kitchen could certainly use a woman’s touch”), Bart goading the poltergeist (“Do it again! Make the walls bleed!”) and Lisa reading the note spat out by the vortex (“Quit throwing your garbage into our dimension”). Much of it riffs once again on the idea of the family reacting to the extraordinary in a thoroughly ordinary way – ordinary within the context of the Simpsons, that is, which means rationalising Bart and Maggie floating in mid-air as just another prank:

boy

“OK boy, let’s see you talk yourself out of this one!”

– or being pragmatic about a property being demonically possessed (“It’s a fixer-upper!”). The same formula is carried over into part two with similarly rich results, culminating in the best run of the entire episode: the sequential reveals of the front cover of the aliens’ cookbook.

*Gasp*

*Gasp!*

*Sigh*

*Blows off dust*

*GASP!*

*Blows off more dust*

"Wait,

“Wait! There’s still MORE space dust on here!”

But when part three arrives, the one-liners dry up and get replaced with shoehorned attempts at spicing Poe’s text with jokes (“Do you know what would have been scarier than nothing?” “What?” “ANYTHING.”). All the verbal humour is sucked abruptly out of the episode. A late own goal on the part of the writing team. 8

Special guests
James Earl Jones was probably the most well-known star to appear in the show at this point. In keeping with the portmanteau format, he turns up in each of the three segments in a different guise. In part one, he has a solitary line as a surly handyman, responding to Homer’s penurious tipping: “A buck? I’m glad there’s a curse on this place.” In part two he voices Serak the Prepaper, something of a spare wheel to Kang and Kodos, though he supplies one of the episode’s finest frames:

"Your wife is quite a dish!"

“Your wife is quite a dish!”

He’s best in part three as the furious narrator of The Raven, where he delivers a masterclass in controlled suspense. 8

Music
This is the first episode of The Simpsons to be scored by Alf Clausen, best known in 1990 for working on the comedy drama series Moonlighting. At last the show has found a composer whose work doesn’t sound like an afterthought or which struggles to fit. Here is someone who, right from the off, grasps how music can augment as well as underpin a television programme. His cues call attention to themselves, as they should, but for all the right reasons. The use of pastiche (The Shining in part one), of idiom (the stunning theremin fanfare at the start of part two) or tempestuous theatrics (pretty much the whole of part three) feels utterly organic and not in the least superficial. For an episode that requires almost a continuous soundtrack, that’s pretty good going – and on your debut as well. But then Clausen goes one better, reworking the title theme for the end credits and knocking it right out the park with a theramin-meets-harpsichord knees-up. More! 9

Voices
Dan Castellaneta is on cracking form, roaring away with unfussy gusto at poltergeists, aliens, ravens, Marge, Bart and even himself, peaking when he’s on the phone to the estate agent in part one: “You didn’t tell me – it was built – on – an INDIAN BURIAL GROUND!… Yeah, well, all right… [hangs up] He said he mentioned it five or six times.” He’s also on fine form voicing Kodos and initiating one of the show’s first great double acts with Harry Shearer, who is deliciously pompous as Kang. James Earl Jones doesn’t quite gel with Shearer and Castellaneta, but gives his most consistently entertaining performance as the narrator in The Raven, especially when charging full tilt through Poe’s most frantic stanzas. 8

Animation direction
The show’s three most experienced directors each handle a segment, with mixed results. Rich Moore oversees part one, and his animation of the haunted house is perfectly judged, especially the modulating colour scheme:

"Quit trying to push us around."

“Quit trying to push us around.”

*heavy house breathing*

*heavy house breathing*

– and the self-imploding finale:

"Life with the Simpsons. What choice do I have?"

“Life with the Simpsons? What choice do I have?”

Wes Archer’s direction for part two has a pair of stand-out sequences. The first is Homer’s attempt to light the barbecue:

Just a drop more

Cook, cook, cook, cookability…

Conflagration

That’s the beauty of gas

The second is the arrival of the UFO above the family’s back garden:

Pastiche incoming

Pastiche incoming

Reverse zoomathing

Reverse zoomathing

The rest of the segment doesn’t quite live up to this promise, being largely confined to the space ship and featuring an awful lot of scenes of characters just standing about. The framing of Homer and Marge’s heads appearing as if severed on dinner plates is nicely done, though:

"Oh yes - you'll be at the feast."

“Oh yes – you’ll be at the feast.”

David Silverman comes up with a tour de force for part three, where he basically gets to show off for five minutes. But that’s not a complaint. Among dozens of highlights, look out for Homer hiding under his chair:

raven

“Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door…”

– the smoke from the fire which becomes spectral arms:

snooze

“Each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor…”

– and a 180-degree swoop:

"Never more."

“Never more.”

Silverman’s segment is overflowing with flair, which is just as well given it’s poorly stocked with much else. 8

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Marge’s pre-titles warning to camera –

"Tonight's show

“Tonight’s show, which I totally wash my hands of…”

– references the opening of the 1931 film of Frankenstein. Part one parodies Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror, with bits of The Shining (the music, the blood), The Exorcist (Maggie’s rotating head) and The Addams Family (the look of the house) thrown in for added spice. The cookbook in part two nods to a 1962 instalment of The Twilight Zone, and part three is an undisguised reworking of Poe’s 1845 narrative poem, complete with name-checks for some of Poe’s other works (The Purloined Letter, The Pit and the Pendulum and The Tell-Tale Heart, the latter already the inspiration for a Simpsons story). The whole thing is an exercise in pastiche, but wears its heritage lightly enough to feel fresh and exciting even 25 years on. 9

Emotion and tone
There’s so much good intention in this episode it’s hard to begrudge even the most shameless of homages. The tone is all over the place, and there’s no emotion to speak of (and certainly no sign of the titular horror). Perhaps that’s to be expected for a portmanteau with a lousy wraparound; the sight of Homer appearing terrified by the kids’ stories falls completely flat. The knockabout style of parts one and two is also much missed from the highly mannered part three. The one consistency is bracingly unsentimental humour, from Lisa’s pithy observation on the haunted house (“It chose to destroy itself rather than live with us. You can’t help but feel a little rejected”) to Homer’s parting shot of “I hate Halloween!” 6

Verdict: 80%
Treehouse of Horror is the point at which The Simpsons moved beyond being essentially a domestic sitcom in cartoon form and shifted up a level, demonstrating with deceptive ease how to marry earthy humour with lofty artistry. If its ambition is sometimes compromised by inconsistency, the exhilaration for the viewer at watching such a treat is compensation enough. The first proper milestone in the show’s history.

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