“Treehouse of Horror III” (season 4, episode 5; originally aired 10/29/1992)
According to the audio commentary on “Treehouse Of Horror III,” some of the creative folks at The Simpsons were concerned that the “Treehouse Of Horror” franchise had outworn its welcome and was rapidly running out of classic horror or science-fiction fodder to spoof. This was back in 1992. Though they obviously realized that these episodes were part of something wonderful and important and lasting, the writers and producers couldn’t have imagined that 20 years later “Treehouse Of Horror” wouldn’t just survive; it’d thrive as one of the most talked-about and watched episodes of every season of The Simpsons.
Writing a “Treehouse Of Horror”segment has to be both exhilarating and daunting. It’s exhilarating because it affords writers all the freedom in the world. In “Treehouse Of Horror” stories,characters could be whatever the show want or need them to be: giant apes, vampires, killer dolls, the whole gothic shebang. And it’s daunting because each segment has to tell a full, complete story in something like six minutes while doing justice to revered source material and including the non-stop laughs and genius gags that characterized The Simpsons in its god-like prime.
In time The Simpsons would, indeed, resort to spoofing such decidedly non-spooktacular fare like E.T and Mr. And Mrs. Smith (both in “Treehouse Of Horror XVIII”) but in 1992 the field was wide-open and the show could cherry-pick the most iconic and beloved fright fare of all time.
In “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes, the rules aren’t just different—they don’t even exist. If writers want Homer to kill Flanders or for a segment to end with a marriage between a woman and a giant ape, they can do so without worrying about continuity or consistency or fans griping that the gang is behaving out of character.
“Treehouse Of Horror III”’s framing device finds the good folks of Springfield telling stories during a Halloween party. The first tale of terror is, depending on your generation, either a spoof of a Twilight Zone episode featuring a doll that wants to kill Telly Savalas, the Zuni Fetish Doll segment of the revered TV-movie horror anthology Trilogy Of Terror or, for contemporary audiences and those with short attention spans, Child’s Play.
“Clown Without Pity,” as the segment is called, opens with Homer forgetting Bart’s birthday and jetting off at the last minute (or rather considerably after the last minute) to pick him up a present. Alas, Homer has the questionable judgment to go gift-shopping at House Of Evil, an establishment that bills itself as “Your one stop evil shop.” That should be a bit of a warning, as is the establishment’s name.
In the House Of Evil, Homer has a conversation with a shopkeeper modeled on the merchant whose grandson sells Gizmo to an unsuspecting family in The Gremlins. The writers may have created the character to pad out the episode, but he’s featured in one of the funniest exchanges in “Treehouse Of Horror III.” It’s a variation on the old vaudeville “That’s good, that’s bad” routine that goes a little something like this:
Shopkeeper: Take this object but beware. It carries a terrible curse.
Homer: Ooh, that’s bad.
Shopkeeper: But it comes with a free frogurt!
Homer: That’s good.
Shopkeeper: The frogurt is also cursed.
Homer: That’s bad.
Shopkeeper: But you get your choice of toppings!
Homer: That’s good!
Shopkeeper: The toppings contain potassium benzoate. [Beat.] That’s bad.
The idea of a merchant selling both totems of pure evil and frozen yogurt (he calls it frogurt!) is amusing in itself, as is the idea that frogurt could be cursed, but it’s really the Shopkeeper’s quicksilver shift from ominous doomsaying to chipper salesmanship that sells the sequence.
The terribly cursed object in question is, of course, a talking Krusty The Clown doll that’s both the perfect birthday gift (Bart loves him some Krusty the Clown) and a terrible threat to Homer’s life and safety. For the doll is pure evil and it isn’t long until it’s threatening to murder Homer with a butcher’s knife. In the best “Treehouse Of Horror” tradition, this segment is at once very funny and genuinely scary at times. Krusty the Clown’s demented grin and hideous, clown-painted visage (as the oeuvre of Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J indelibly illustrate, there’s nothing in the world more terrifying than a wicked clown) have never seemed quite so sinister.
The second segment is one of the most audacious and ambitious in “Treehouse Of Horror” history, and not just because it’s in black and white. It’s a parody of King Kong that works spectacularly well because Homer isn’t just ape-like and simian on the inside: he’s ape-like and simian on the outside as well, so it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the rage-filled man-child as a giant ape with serious anger-control issues.
Mr. Burns is similarly perfectly cast as a heartless capitalist willing to do anything for a quick buck, even if it means endangering the lives of those around him and Marge elegantly rounds out the main cast as a good, pure-hearted and overly indulgent woman who sees the big, good heart (literally and metaphorically) of a monstrous man-brute. As with “Clown Without Pity”, some of the episode’s funniest bits are weird, talky digressions, most notably the part where Lenny tells Karl that he wishes they were going to Candy Apple island instead of Giant Ape island. Oh, Candy Apple Island still has apes, all right, but they’re not quite as big as the ones found on Giant Ape island. After all, what do you expect to find on Candy Apple island? Candy apples or something?
“King Homer” follows the story of King Kong closely, with Mr. Burns taking the freakishly over-sized King Homer from his native Africa, where he lives proud as a simian god, to the United States, where he is an initially impressive but ultimately rather limited Broadway attraction. This is underlined when reporters ask Mr. Burns’ shameless, sociopathic impresario what exactly King Homer’s stage show will be like and Burns slickly replies, “The ape’s going to stand around for three hours or so. Then we’ll close with the ethnic comedy of Dugan and Dershowitz”
King Homer isn’t one to go along with the program, however, and runs amok with Marge in his meaty paw. Alas, King Homer shares some of the physical shortcomings of non-King Homer: he doesn’t make it far up a skyscraper until he gets winded and plummets not very far to the ground below.
Thankfully, King Homer, like non-King Homer, has an angel named Marge to save him from himself and his rages. In an agreeably perverse resolution, “King Homer” ends with King Homer marrying Marge in a ceremony that brings together the species in a bestiality-riffic ending.
The next segment, “Dial Z for Zombie”, cross-pollinates Night Of The Living Dead with Pet Semetary by having Bart inadvertently resurrect the dead while attempting to bring the family’s beloved dead cat back to life. This results in mischief across the board, from zombie Principal Skinner ordering Martin to come to the Principal’s office and bring his juicy chess club brain with him to zombie Krusty asking kids to send him their brains.
“Dial Z For Zombie” climaxes with an uncharacteristically badass Homer taking the family to the school (or book depository as he calls it) and blasting away such undead paragons of human potential as Albert Einstein, George Washington and William Shakespeare with a shotgun. Who wouldn’t want to kill zombie Shakespeare? Nobody I care to know, that’s for sure.
As with the two previous entries, “Dial Z For Zombie” wraps things up rather neatly by having Bart recite a spell that undoes the horror unleashed by his previous incantation. After the zombie menace is defeated, the Simpsons are then free to sit zombie-like in front of a television and passively soak in its riches. “Treehouse of Horror III” doesn’t just traffic in genre parody: it closes with an incisive bit of social satire as well, one of the hallmarks of the show in its glorious, glorious, still unmatched prime.
- “The zombies that plagued our town are now just corpses lying in the street!” and with that a horrible affliction becomes a mere inconvenience
- “From A-Apple to Z-Zebra, Baby’s First Pop Up Book is 26 pages of alphabetic adventure,” Bart Simpson, book critic
- That “Where’s Waldo” may be dated but it’s also very funny.
- It’s not the biggest joke, but I really love Mr. Burns brooding, “I’m dreading the reviews. I tell you that.” After King Homer runs amok.
- Why, but why, is there an evil setting on the Krusty doll in the first place?
- “There goes the last lingering threat of my heterosexuality” after being flashed by Homer may be the best Patty line ever.
- Next up is “Itchy & Scratchy The Movie.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.