(Photo: Fox)

“I used to be very important. Google it.”

The 28th “Treehouse Of Horror” carries on the venerable Simpsons institution by, as ever, tossing a whole lot of stuff at the screen and seeing what sticks. To that end, this year’s outing gives us: An Exorcist parody, a Coraline parody, Homer eating human flesh (just his own, but still), stop-motion segments, horror and fantasy-specific guest stars, a little light Fox standards-pushing (Homer does, as stated, eat human flesh), and the usual string of hit-or-miss gags. That last part isn’t really a criticism in itself. Freed up from the need to calibrate the heart-yucks equation, a “Treehouse Of Horror” rises or falls on the strength of its jokes, although the annual Halloween anthology provides its own unique degree of difficulty.

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With three original segments to cram into about 20 minutes, complete with their own premise, conflict, and resolution, calls for an inspired focus that—to put it as respectfully as possible—has not been the show’s strong point for a long, long time. Toss in the inherent dangers of the episodes’ parody segments falling into the trap of forgetting that references do not, in themselves, equal satisfying jokes, and the enduring problem that there’s little indication that the Simpsons writers room is packed with people whose knowledge of the genres being parodied goes particularly deep, and what should be a yearly lark for the creators sometimes comes off more like a held-over chore.

(Photo: Fox)

The pre-credits sequence “The Sweets Hereafter” exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of the “Treehouse” enterprise in miniature. The 3-D concept that was a major event once upon a time is now just a quick eye-catcher, as we see the family portrayed as Halloween-bowl candy snacks (Lisa is an unwanted apple, naturally), sweating out their fates as monstrous little hands come snatching. There are a few “bite the hands that feed you” jokes at Bart for inhabiting a certain, heavily marketed candy product, but, the swapping of an Oh Henry! for an Oh Homer! bar is about the level of inventiveness on display. Grandpa being sacrificed (as a mini-box of “Senior Mints”) is a little better, and the family’s survival—where they set upon and messily devour Hank Azaria’s similarly leftover chocolate Easter bunny is a ghoulish enough way to kick things off.

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(Photo: Fox)

That The Simpsons hasn’t trotted out a proper Exorcist parody in all this time should serve to head off the “that’s really topical” sneering in the opening segment, “Exor-sis.” Seriously, it’s an awfully dull thing to criticize the show for. (The time-tested “The Shinning” came out 14 years after the film of The Shining, for crying out loud, so shush, Comic Book Guy.) It’s all about what the writers think to do with the source material, either in the form of clever spins on elements of the original or just plain funny jokes spun off from it. And that’s where the sneering can begin! But I kid this serviceably forgettable horror tale. Of the two Exorcist-centric guest voices tonight, it’s the TV version that brings most of the funny, as Ben Daniels lends his slyly commanding brogue to the role of the Irish priest summoned to de-demonize a possessed Maggie. For one, he inexplicably pulls out that darn leprechaun from his exorcism kit and that pugnacious, incomprehensible little weirdo is always good for a laugh in my book. (The way his gibberish fades as the air runs out in his sandwich bag prison gets another.) That Homer’s internet-ordered Pazuzu statue (he thought he was ordering pizza) sets off a series of gory but predictable gags is inoffensively amusing enough. Reverend Lovejoy’s demurring “I’m afraid they didn’t teach me those at Pepperdine,” when asked to step up to the exorcism plate is a funny line reading, as is Daniels’s response to Marge’s unimpressed response to his opening “demon get out” order. (“Well, I say it three times.”) But overall, it’s pretty tame stuff—even the pea-soup barfing doesn’t pay off until it carries over into the next segment.

(Photo: Fox)

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That one, the Coraline riff “Coralisa,” calls attention to its own, different iteration of 3-D animation, as Lisa, following a secret door into the world of the Coraline-style Simpson family, exclaims, “For a Halloween show middle segment, this is amazing!” I mean, it’s neat-looking, and Coraline creator Neil Gaiman does do a fine job as Snowball V, revealing not only that there’s a tunnel to a magical world, or that cats can talk, but also that cats traditionally don’t bother because humans are so bloody dull and uninspired. Gaiman’s drollery is put to its best use, though when Lisa can’t help but distract him with the pool of her flashlight beam, and Gaiman-cat can’t help but chase it, crying, “Ooh, shiny!” over and over again. Coraline’s balance of grotesque whimsy is represented by the other-worldly Simpsons, who have crudely sewn button eyes and require anyone coming to live with them undergo the same process. There’s also the barest hint of Lisa-centric character stuff here, as she finds these creepy but otherwise-accommodatng Simpsons have some especially welcome differences. (When the button-Simpsons whip out instruments for a jazz jam session, Lisa exclaims happily, “You’re all good but not better than me!”) Overall, the novelty wears off in the face of nothing particularly inventive being done with the concept, and the whole thing is buttoned up (pardon) with a fart joke. About Homer’s butt being buttoned up.

(Photo: Fox)

Since “Coralisa” ends on Lisa’s pronouncement “No matter how bad things are, they can get much, much worse,” it’d help this reviewer put a button on things, too, if the final segment were terrible. As it turns out, however, the joke about Homer discovering that his sedentary, carb-fed flesh is tastier even than steak isn’t awful, just inessential and as tame as a self-cannibalism joke can get. Lisa comes out to start the segment with a Marge-esque warning about the stomach-churning content to come, but the story is a mostly bloodless riff on “Survivor Type” body horror that’s more about the food-monster side of Homer than anything truly transgressive. When Homer accidentally lops his finger off (right onto the waiting barbecue grill), we get a brief cry of pain before the smell entices him to start with the amputations, but, unlike, say, the Springfield Elementary student smoothie of “Treehouses” past, this is all too blandly forgettable. I liked the montage of Homer getting ambitious in the kitchen. Grating his head onto some steaming Homer dish is the sort of creatively gross laugh the segment—and the episode—could have used more of.

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Stray observations

  • Other guest stars: The Exorcist director William Friedkin plays Homer and Marge’s marriage counselor in the last segment, greeting the sight of a legless Homer defending his right to eat himself to death (literally) with underplayed equanimity. And that’s celebrity chef Mario Batali in the same segment—playing himself, the celebrity chef, to unmemorable effect.
  • Homer, after eating all the contents of the fridge apart from the heaping bounty of the vegetable crisper: “Not a single morsel in the house!”
  • We could probably have done without the “spaghetti with my-balls” joke, right? Anyone?
  • Homer, looking down from Heaven on all the eateries that have adopted a Homer-based menu, asks the unimpressed Jesus if he knows what it’s like to have people eating his body all the time. That should tick off some people, at least.
  • Same goes for the exorcist’s line, “If you can’t trust a Catholic priest with a child, who can you trust?”
  • Pazuzu, getting pissy over Lisa’s assertion that the demon isn’t much in demand these days: “I used to be very important. Google it.”
  • Lisa, spotting the tiny door: “We don’t have smoke alarms, but we have this?” Homer (offscreen): “Smoke is its own alarm!”
  • Homer, rushing past Marge’s offer to call of her trip to Patty and Selma’s: “We’ve already kissed goodbye and the car heard it!”

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