Patron Pick – The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror I-III

This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will get to pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Treehouse of Horror 
(original airdate: October 25, 1990)
Written by John Swartzwelder, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarksy, Sam Simon, and Edgar Allen Poe
Directed by Wes Archer, Rich Moore, and David Silverman

Treehouse of Horror II
(original airdate: October 21, 1991)
Written by Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jeff Martin, George Meyer, Sam Simon, and John Swartzwelder
Directed by Jim Reardon

Treehouse of Horror III
(original airdate: October 29, 1992)
Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky, Sam Simon, and Jon Vitti
Directed by Carlos Baeza

I can vividly remember watching the first Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror on a Thursday evening in 1990. I was genuinely scared and entertained by it. I think that’s one of the great appeals of those early Treehouse episodes; the writers injected it with genuine horror but pulled back just enough so you wouldn’t get too frightened. The annual series was inspired by the anthology horror comics of E.C. (Tales from the Crypt, etc.), evidenced by the prevalence of gruesome puns in the opening credits. It wasn’t intended to become an annual tradition but rather an experiment with the show’s format. 

The stories occur outside of the show’s continuity, allowing them to violently dispatch with family members and not worry about what to do for the next episode. Each episode features three short stories, often parodies of well-known horror films, shows, or reports. There was a framing device early on, but in subsequent years, that was dropped, with each segment starting after a commercial break. In 1990, the framing had Bart and Lisa hiding out in the backyard treehouse, sharing ghost stories after coming home from trick or treating. Homer listens in and becomes increasingly more frightened by their tales.

The very first story in a Treehouse episode was “Bad Dream House,” a very obvious parody of Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror. Homer moves the family into a large home he got for a steal but doesn’t think to inform them it was built on a burial ground. The house tries to frighten them away and, during the night, manipulates the family into turning on each other. It’s a genuinely creepy story followed by “Hungry Are the Damned,” a nod to a classic Twilight Zone episode. The Twilight Zone would become a significant source of inspiration for the Treehouse entries. This is also the first of many stories where the Space Mutants, Kang & Kodos, try out a scheme on the Simpsons. The final segment is an adaptation of Poe’s The Raven, read by James Earl Jones. At the time, series creator Matt Groening worried the short was way too pretentious, but it completely works. I always thought it brought out the creepiness of that particular poem.

The response to the first year was tremendous, which led to a follow-up episode in 1991. In the first Treehouse, it had been introduced by Marge, who came out on stage to warn parents about the violence & scariness. The warnings continued with the second year, where Marge states that so many complaints came in even after she warned people. This time, she emphasized, it will be scary, so parents need to seriously put their kids to bed. The first story presented was “The Monkey’s Paw,” the same title as a famous horror short story following the “be careful what you wish for” trope. The Simpsons continually misuse the paw and its wishes only to have Flanders step in and fix everything. This story also had Kang & Kodos returning when Lisa wished for world peace, leaving the planet vulnerable. 

“The Bart Zone” was a parody of “It’s a Good Life,” a Twilight Zone presented on the original series and then remade in the 1980 Twilight Zone movie. Bart takes the place of Billy Mumy’s character, a boy with powerful reality-bending abilities whom the townsfolk must keep happy. Homer is transformed into a jack in the box and has to bond with Bart to convince the boy to change him back. The episode wraps with “If I Only Had a Brain,” which casts Mr. Burns as a Dr. Frankenstein-type seeking to build a robot that can replace his workers at the power plant. Homer gets laid off and then employed as a gravedigger, promptly falling asleep in a freshly dug hole. Burns and Smithers mistake him for a corpse, and his brain ends up in the robot. I think you can see where the story will go. I don’t think the second installment was as strong as the first; it is much more comedic and less horrifying than the original.

For the third entry, the framing device has Bart & Lisa hosting a Halloween party at their home and sharing scary stories with their guests. The stories come from Lisa, Grampa, and Bart. “Clown Without Pity” is a parody of the Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll.” Homer goes to a store called House of Evil to get a last-minute gift for Bart. Unfortunately, the Krusty the Klown doll ends up being alive and tries to kill Homer repeatedly when the rest of the family isn’t looking. Finally, after switching him from evil mode to good, the poor doll ferries food & drink to Homer as the patriarch sloths away on the couch.  

“King Homer” is a send-up of the classic King Kong film with Marge as Fay Wray and Homer as the titular ape. Mr. Burns is the producer who uses Marge for bait. Nothing is terrifying about this one, it’s a solid parody, but I find it not to push the boundaries like some of the better Treehouse stories will. The third installment is capped off with “Dial ‘Z’ for Zombies,” which Wikipedia cites as a parody of Return of the Living Dead. I’m not sure if I go along with that one; I think this is more a generic zombie story borrowing elements from all sorts of sources. My favorite part of this episode is the introduction where Homer (briefly referencing Alfred Hitchock Presents) delivers a message given to him by Marge about warning parents again. It was funny how many parents would complain about a show like the Simpsons but not put forth the effort to monitor and control what their kids watched.

The Treehouse of Horror episodes are some classic Simpsons viewing. They are incredibly playful due to the lack of strict continuity rules, and you can feel the writers enjoying themselves. Consistent characterization is out the window, but that’s okay because whatever happens here won’t matter next week when it’s back to regular. I still think that the first Treehouse episode is the scariest; it’s a bit crude in the animation style, which lends itself to the creepy factor. If you haven’t watched these in years, like me, it should make for some fun Halloween viewing, taking you back to that era when The Simpsons were still very funny.

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