86. Treehouse of Horror IV

“Homer! Stop picking at it”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 28 October 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 19 October 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First drafts: Greg Daniels and Dan McGrath (part one); Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein (part two); Bill Canterbury (part three); Conan O’Brien (links)
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Conan O’Brien, David Richardson, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Gerry Richardson, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: David Silverman

This is the point that the Simpsons’ Halloween episodes start to feel normal. The first three specials had a sense of novelty and daring; the fourth doesn’t quite manage either, and settles instead for a more cosy and camp horror trading in broad laughs and broader send-ups. No historical pastiche or poetic allusion here. It’s just three straight parodies, each of which puts the Simpson family in circumstances more silly than unsettling, at the end of which someone is left in a pickle. The only thing ominous about this episode is the feeling of the writers going through the motions. One of the stories is even a bit boring.

This is the middle chunk of the episode, Terror at 5 1/2 Feet. Bart thinks there is a gremlin on the side of the school bus. Nobody believes him. Minute passes minute, Bart keeps seeing the gremlin, and nobody keeps believing him. It’s an idea that depends on suspense not comedy for impact, which is why it worked so well on The Twilight Zone and doesn’t really work at all on The Simpsons. What entertainment there is comes from the incidental stuff: Milhouse and his Krusty trading cards, Martin and his Wang Computers T-shirt, Hans Moleman’s car blowing up, and Skinner having to ride on the bus “because Mother hid my car keys to punish me for talking to a woman on the phone. She was right to do it.” At the end Bart gets carted off to an asylum, still yelling tediously. “Perhaps spending the rest of your life in a madhouse will teach you some manners!” Skinner says tartly, and for once you’re happy that Bart is on the losing side of an argument.

The best section is part one, The Devil and Homer Simpson. Seeing Flanders drawn as the devil is one of those visual ideas that never stops being amusing; the moment he transforms himself into something properly devilish is properly exciting. Here the source material is ideal for an animated short, with a punchy opening, a great middle section (Homer’s trial) and a twist at the end. Anything that finds room for a dig at Richard Nixon is worth extra points (Nixon: “But I’m not dead yet!” Flanders/devil: “Hey listen, I did a favour for you!” Nixon: “Yes, master.”) Having Marge struggle to find chairs for the “jury of the damned” is only a tiny detail but makes a big impression, because it is exactly what her character would do in such an absurd situation. And it’s always fun seeing Homer’s notes to himself.

That leaves the third and final section, Bart Simpson’s Dracula. This groans (and not in a good way) under the weight of its nods to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It is where the episode feels most like it is running on autopilot. The in-jokes are ticked off as if a shopping list. Showrunner David Mirkin was a big fan of the original film; you can hear him ordering his team: put that in! And that! And then that! Once again, the jokes around the edges are funnier than those pushed into the foreground, in particular the Super Fun Happy Slide (Bart: “I really shouldn’t – but when I am going to be here again?”) and Homer’s elbow-waggling excitement.

Cameos from other residents of Springfield lift the mood further, particularly Kent Brockman (“This black cape was found on the scene. Police are baffled”).

Mr Burns as a vampire is almost too good an idea to throw away on a short. The moment when Bart and his peers hover menacingly outside Lisa’s bedroom, with Lisa’s face reflected in the window, is another highlight.

Grading the Halloween specials against the usual criteria is perhaps unfair; how can the flippant gags and compressed storylines possibly compete with the ornate humour and sinuous plot of something like Rosebud? Comparisons with previous Treehouses of Horror seem more reasonable. This one has the least persuasive stories of the four Treehouses to date (6) and only a brief appearance from Phil Hartman as Lionel Hutz by way of special guests (4). But Alf Clausen’s music is as sparkling as ever (9) as is David Silverman’s direction (9), and the parodies plentiful if not always inspired (7). Design (8), vocal performance (9) and characterisation (8) all go some way to offsetting the rather lacklustre mood (4) and jokes (5). 69% is the lowest score for a Treehouse so far. Thank goodness this sort of thing only comes round once a year.

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