The annual “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes, unlike episodes of The Simpsons proper, are greeted with goodwill, even in these oft-maligned latter days. From the very first installment, the vignettes of these yearly Halloween specials are like the show’s fun-size treats for the viewers, ghoulish little rewards for watching. Like all anthologies, too, we’re predisposed to like them for their very novelty, and brevity—each segment only has so long to establish its comic premise and pack in as many laughs and references as possible, and then it’s on to the next one. A good “Treehouse Of Horror” is a giddy, whiz-bang parade of funny ideas, while a great one seizes on its horror fiction inspirations and shakes out some insightful satire along the way.
Tonight’s “Treehouse,” the 24th, hits more often than not, with one segment ambitious (if not particularly hilarious), one amiably lazy, and the last a successful melding of specificity of reference and independently funny lines. It’s be an above average, destined-to-be-forgotten installment, except for a big ace in the deck named Guillermo del Toro, who lends his imagination to the opening credits sequence and drags the episode up a half grade.
That extended opening sequence lives up to the fanfare—three minutes of breakneck allusion, motion, and obvious affection for both The Simpsons and the horror genre in all its glorious, daffy diversity. Honestly, it’s a joy to watch (and re-watch, as it only reveals all its pleasures with the help of your DVR and the pause button), and while I’ll leave the obsessive cataloguing to the comments, apart from the appearances from the director’s own films like Mimic, Cronos, both Hellboys, Blade II, and Pan’s Labyrinth (Mr. Burns makes for a perfect Pale Man), I found myself grinning most goofily at del Toro’s references to Brian DePalma’s Phantom Of The Paradise (leading a chorus of the various opera Phantoms), and 1977’s The Car (running Milhouse’s bike off a bridge). Oh, and it’s always nice when Cthulhu drops by.
The first vignette is the Seuss-ian “Oh, The Places You’ll Doh!,” with Homer as the Fat in the Hat, a creature who makes all of his almost-namesake’s mischievous pranks (here aiding the mumps-ridden Simpson kids on a Halloween candy hunt) more overtly destructive and mean-spirited than even that Mike Myers abomination did. It’s a conceit I appreciated more than laughed at—the rhyming narration and dialogue credited to Jeff Westbrook are meticulously crafted, with some clever wordplay. I especially appreciated Apu’s tortured appeal to the heavily armed Homer, “Take all that you want, I don’t want any trouble, take Slim of the Jim and gum of the bubble.” Throw in a well-deserved (if also well-worn) attack on the hypocritical merchandizing of the Lorax (here hawking a gas-guzzling SUV among a myriad other things), and a gratuitous slam on the aforementioned Myers, and the opener gets points for effort, anyway.
The weakest of the bunch, “Dead And Shoulders” is up next, with Bart’s all-too-predictable decapitation while kite flying leading to a The Thing With Two Heads situation when Dr. Hibbert awkwardly grafts Bart’s noggin onto Lisa’s shoulder, explaining “I’m sorry—this was the only way to lengthen Bart’s life by a year while shortening yours by thirty.” (He and Dr. Zoidberg apparently went to the same medical school.) Despite Bart’s discovery that he can control Lisa’s body while she’s asleep (and the attendant murderous plan to lop off Lisa’s head), there’s not much imagination put into the horror aspect, although there are a few good lines. (Between two fighter pilots: “Kite at two o’clock!” “I don’t know what that means, I have a digital watch!”)
The final segment’s the best (not counting the opening), a Freaks parody that manages the tricky balancing act of being faithful to its source material, commenting on it in reasonably clever style, and throwing in some very funny bits of its own. In it, Moe is revealed as Mr. Burns’ main freak show attraction, “the most hideous creature of all.” (It’s just Moe.) Falling in love with sweet aerialist Marge and possessed of a valuable engagement ring, Moe’s set up by brutal strongman Homer (“I’m in the best shape anyone is—in the 1930s!”) It’s a lovingly detailed recreation of the still-unsettling 1932 horror classic that provides rich ground for the episode’s best gags to flower. Homer, detailing his over-elaborate ring-getting scheme is just right (“I get Marge to marry Moe, then I kill Moe, then she gets the ring, then I marry her and the ring is mine! And the brilliance of my plan is its simplicity!”) And Mr. Burns warning to the crows before unveiling Moe (“Now I must ask that all children leave, good women avert their eyes, and men take a strong slug of circus whiskey!”) is the sort of richly specific old-timey line that Conan O’Brien used to write on the show. See also, Homer’s rejection of Marge’s sympathy for the freaks: “Marge, they knew what they were getting into when their parents sold them to the circus.” And Homer’s plans for his ill-gotten wealth, “a jalopy, an icebox, a steamer trunk full of fedoras!” The payoff, with the freak-transformed Chicken-Homer revealed as the How I Met Your Mother dad, got me, too.
After the season-opening Homeland parody storyline in last week’s episode and a “Treehouse of Horror” for its second, we have yet to see exactly what this season has going for it as The Simpsons soldiers on for its 25th season, as these premise-heavy episodes haven’t left much room for character. Next week will be the real test, but for now, I’ll take these first two installments as cause for hope.
- I know I’m not swift enough to catch every reference in tonight’s stellar credits sequence by Guillermo del Toro, but you guys are—have at it, commenters! (Especially—who are the two horror writers alongside Lovecraft, Poe, Ray Bradbury, and the Illustrated Man?)
- Homer’s man cave includes: A Warhol print of donuts, chocolate, beer, and horseradish fountains, a running snowmobile, a foosball table bolted to the wall, and a picture of a sexy hot dog washing a sports car.
- Moe gets my favorite off-the-wall line: “She gave it to me on her death bed. She also acquired it on her death bed. That was a very busy death bed.”
- Homer, master of manipulation: “Hey Marge, you wanna marry Moe?”
- Moe again: “Those are very strange things to say, but a wedding is no place to worry about threats from the bride’s former lover!”
- I didn't catch a Devil's Backbone reference anywhere. Did I miss it?