Friday, October 31, 2008

The 10 Best 'Treehouses of Horror' Tales

One of the unsung accomplishments in The Simpsons long run on Fox is its place in television Halloween history. The annual Treehouse of Horror episode, which debuted on Oct. 25, 1990, has to be considered one of the best and most successful Halloween traditions in TV history. The standard adopted on that initial ToH -- three vignettes mocking horror movies or ghost stories -- has never been altered, and along the way it has produced some of the most memorable Simpsons moments.

It's easy to associate ToH with Halloween, but in fact it has aired only twice on Oct. 31, in 1991 and 1999. Some seasons have even delayed the Halloween episode late in November (2004 was a lowpoint, with ToH airing on Nov. 7). No matter when it airs, it doesn't feel right to miss a new ToH episode, and some Fox affiliates still air a string of the Halloween episodes on the holiday's date. So in honor of The Simpsons' 20th season and Halloween, here are my 10 favorite Treehouse of Horror tales:

10. The Thing and I
Treehouse of Horror VII
Aired: Oct. 27, 1996
Inspired by: The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Basketcase, Do You Know Where Your Kids Are? (Freddie's Nightmares episode)

A great attempt at creating actual scares, "The Thing and I" is surprisingly creepy with an effective twist ending. While investigating strange sounds from the attic, Bart, Lisa and Maggie discover empty shackles and a shadowy figure before being scared away. After pressing for answers, Homer and Marge confess that Bart was actually one half of conjoined twins, and the evil twin has spent his life living in the attic.

9. I've Grown a Costume on Your Face
Treehouse of Horror XVI
Air date: Nov. 6, 2005
Inspired by: Halloween III: Season of the Witch, The Masks (Twilight Zone).

Maybe the most underrated ToH tale, "I've Grown a Costume on Your Face" draws some inspiration from the above sources, but is mostly original. When a Springfield costume party awards first prize to a woman dressed as a witch, it is discovered she is in fact an actual witch. Since she is not technically in costume, her award is withdrawn, and in retaliation the witch casts a spell on the city -- turning them into their costumes. This produces some interesting results: Apu is now R2D2, Flanders is a daisy, and Patty and Selma each have half of a horse's body. Maggie is the town's only hope, since she was wearing a witch's costume herself, but what spell will she cast?

8. Citizen Kang
Treehouse of Horror VII
Air date: Oct. 27, 1996
Inspired by: V (tearing off aliens' masks)

A brilliant story in lieu of that year's election, "Citizen Kang" gives us the familiar Kang and Kodos who kidnap candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. The aliens impersonate the politicians, leading to several laugh out loud moments: "Always twirling toward freedom!" "Abortions for some, miniature American flags for everyone!" "What about a third party candidate? Go ahead, throw your vote away!"

7. The Shinning
Treehouse of Horror V
Air date: Oct. 30, 1994
Inspired by: The Shining

A mostly excellent Kubrick satire, continuing a running gag of this episode where Willy is murdered in each tale. Good (if not obvious) casting makes this one memorable: Willy as the groundskeeper, Moe as the bartender, and of course Mr. Burns as the resort owner.

6. The Bart Zone
Treehouse of Horror II
Air date: Oct. 31, 1991
Inspired by: It's a Good Life (Twilight Zone)

This tale pounces on the meaty potential of the source material and produces one of the funniest ToH vignettes ever. Bart, as the boy who can alter anything with his mind, routinely changes history with his wrong test answers (America's name is suddenly changed to "Bonerland"), and keeps everyone in Springfield walking on eggshells. I would go so far as to say "The Bart Zone" does a better job with the story than The Twilight Zone, as it expands the reach of the boy's powers to the whole world, and not just a small farming neighborhood ("You know what we say anytime something weird happens, 'that's very good!'")

5. Dial Z for Zombies
Treehouse of Horror III
Air date: Oct. 30, 1992
Inspired by: Pick your zombie movie.

"Dad, you killed the Zombie Flanders!"
"He was a zombie?"
The Simpsons served up hilarious zombie satire way before Shaun of the Dead made it cool.

4. King Homer
Treehouse of Horror III
Air date: Oct. 30, 1992
Inspired by: King Kong

Simply one of the funniest 7 minutes in Simpsons history, "King Homer" is amazingly funny on every level. This also contains one of my favorite deliveries in the series' history, as Mr. Burns says to Marge: "We wouldn't think of going anywhere without the bait -- that is the bathing beauty! I covered that up pretty well!" This tale could have gone No. 1 easily, but gets bumped down because it doesn't really have a horror or Halloween tone to it.

3. Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace
Treehouse of Horror VI
Air date: Oct. 29, 1995
Inspired by: A Nightmare on Elm Street

This one starts off with a bang, as we find ourselves in a dream of Bart's where he's animated Looney Tunes-style. It's a fun moment, and a great way to illustrate an animated character's dream. Willy plays Freddie in this one, a spot-on take-off of Nightmare on Elm Street, complete with a very cinematic climax and what-the-hell twist ending.

2. Hungry are the Damned
Treehouse of Horror I
Air date: Oct. 25, 1990
Inspired by: To Serve Man (Twilight Zone), This Island Earth

A fall-down funny satire of The Twilight Zone's most famous episode, featuring one of the show's best-ever gags. After being abducted by seemingly nice aliens, Lisa becomes suspicious when they're fed banquet after banquet and regularly weighed. The curious Lisa finds a cookbook called "How to Cook Humans," which after removing some space dust becomes "How to Cook For Humans," then "How to Cook Forty Humans," before the complete title is revealed. This was also part of the very first ToH, and it still holds up as one of the best of the Halloween series (the other two tales, "Bad Dream House" and "The Raven," are equally strong).

1. Terror at 5 1/2 Feet
Treehouse of Horror IV
Air date: Oct. 28, 1993
Inspired by: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Twilight Zone)

You could make the case for many of the entries on this list as No. 1, but this tale will always be at the top of my list. Like "Hungry are the Damned," it takes excellent source material and turns it on its ear, putting a genuine Simpsons stamp on a high-grade horror tale. Along the way there are many classic moments: Hans Moleman as the AMC Gremlin driver, Homer stealing an air horn and life jackets from the dock ("it was just sitting in some guys boat!") and the thoroughly satisfying ending ("right or wrong, you didn't follow the rules -- perhaps spending the rest of your life in an insane asylum will teach you a lesson!").


Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Ross said...

At least once a year I get that "Just Don't Look" jingle stuck in my head, and it usually stays there for a few days.


What I think is the funniest Simpsons gag comes from the Halloween episode in which Homer, through use of a toaster, travels through alternate realities...

"Marge, would you kindly pass me a donut."
"Donut, what's a donut?"
Runs screaming out.
"Oh, it's raining again."

Probably the most clever thing I've ever seen!

Adam Ross said...

That's a good one too, Joseph, I thought about adding it to the list. My favorite part is at the beginning when Homer's talking about how much he loves his family, and the kids yell "Dad, your hand's in the toaster!" and then "It's in there again!"

elgringo said...

I love the "To Serve Man" episode. It's one of my favorite Twilight Zones and I remember have just seen the original when the Simpsons parodied it.

I had completely forgotten about the "Citizen Kang" episode. Hilarious!


How about the cut to the toaster, after he's done fixing it! Always gives me a good laugh.

CITIZEN KANE episode is ridiculously funny.

What am I talking about. They all are!

Stacie Ponder said...

"Oh good! The curtains are on fire!" runs through my head with alarming frequency.

I miss the framing narrative of the early Treehouse episodes...

PIPER said...

Great list Adam.

I really enjoyed this year's Peanuts spoof with the Great Pumpkin.

"Is there any part of my brain in particular you're looking for?"

As skinner is getting his brains scooped out.


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