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 Since she is not technically in costume, her award is withdrawn, and in retaliation the witch casts a spell on the city -- turning them into their costumes.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!").

Monday, October 27, 2008

Kinda like that one time you won a Family Guy DVD set...

Hi, I'm Adam Ross with DVD Panache (LIGHT APPLAUSE).

Thank you, but please settle down, we have something serious to talk about here: nothing. That's right "nothing," the little word that represents the absence of anything. "Nothing" is usually used in a negative connotation (see: The Never Ending Story), and rightfully so -- but today I'm here to offer you a chance to experience "nothing" for all the good it can represent. Namely, getting something for nothing (GASPS).

I know, what you're wondering what the catch is, and here it is: you just have to send me an email (SKEPTICAL MURMURING). But there has to be more to it than that, right? Yes, you're right: you have to send me an email telling me what your favorite Family Guy flashback is. So now you know about the "nothing" of the equation, and here's the "something": one random person who sends me an email telling me what their favorite Family Guy flashback is will receive a copy of Family Guy: Vol. 6 (RANDOM WHISTLES OF APPROVAL). You remember that Family Guy has flashbacks, right? Here's one to refresh your memory:

So one person is guaranteed a happy ending in this deal, but what of everyone else? You won't be left out, because after the prize is sent out, DVD Panache will present a list of the best of the flashback entrants, including my personal favorite. So now all you need to do is decide on your favorite Family Guy flashback -- but don't take too long, the voting deadline is Nov. 3! And since we're on the topic of Family Guy, Vol. 6, let's take a look at the voices and writers who were responsible for all those flashbacks:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

His name is Bill. He solves problems.

In the haunted home stretch of his October Kill Fest, Jonathan "My next scary name may be your own" Lapper took time to celebrate The Twilight Zone. Jonathan's post and the accompanying leagues of comments put me in a TZ mood, as I am known to fall into occasionally. Jonathan's mention of Little Girl Lost as one of his favorite episodes got me thinking about it, specifically one of its supporting characters that I've always been fascinated with. He's the unsung character in a memorable episode. He might have deserved his own series. His name is Bill.

Little Girl Lost (watch the full episode here) is the episode that probably inspired Poltergeist, featuring a young girl who inexplicably disappears, though her family can still hear her. After a few frantic moments, the parents decide to do what they should have done at the start: call Bill. It's the middle of the night, but Bill is at the ready, and is soon at the door. Assessing the situation, Bill learns that little Tina went under her bed, and was later followed by the family dog, but both are now nowhere to be found. Bill takes the initiative to move the child's bed, and is smart enough to "mark where the legs were" (good call Bill, the last thing Tina needs after she's found is to see that her bed was moved and then replaced slightly out of position).

Bill comes to the conclusion that Tina and the dog had vanished via an invisible portal, and after some awkward movements he locates said portal in a nearby wall. Bill's hand goes right through the wall, so it's not your average wall. Bill quickly deduces that we're dealing with the 4th Dimension ("just a step up from the third"), a dimension that occasionally meets up with our own. In the episode's best moment, Bill gives a scholarly explanation of the 4th Dimension's properties while drawing a perimeter of the portal on the wall. It's a wonderful moment, and Bill does it with unflinching confidence.

A plan comes together where Tina's father will poke his head into the portal and try to locate his daughter, whom he eventually find. Though Chris the father is seen walking around in this odd, echo-y 4th Dimension, Bill reveals after all is back to normal that Chris was actually never all the way through the portal -- Bill was holding on to him the whole time. The portal closes up just as Chris and Tina cross back over, and to all a good night.

Everything's back to normal, yet one question remains: how is Bill not the coolest man alive? So knowledgeable is Bill, so unflappable, he doesn't even blink when faced with the prospect of a close friend's daughter vanishing into an unknown dimension. Oh, wait -- it's not an unknown dimension because Bill knows all about it! Just imagine how many calls Bill takes a day from his friends about their stupid problems: there's a meteor with glowing goo in my backyard, I think I just created a mini-black hole, there's an eye growing on my hand, my son says he's gay, blah blah blah. Bill's there, just give him a call.

Another thing I love about this episode, you have to love the ending Rod Serling tacks on:

The other half where? The fourth dimension? The fifth? Perhaps. They never found the answer. Despite a battery of research physicists equipped with every device known to man, electronic and otherwise, no result was ever achieved, except perhaps a little more respect for and uncertainty about the mechanisms of the Twilight Zone.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The 1080 Times, vol. 4

While we're in the midst of a sell-off on Wall Street, HD-DVD enthusiasts are definitely in a buy buy buy market. You need to buy now because prices on new HD-DVDs keep falling, along with inventory. After listing The Adventures of Robin Hood at a record low price of $9.99, Amazon then described it as "discontinued by the manufacturer" and is now simply "unavailable." At DVD Panache favorite Deep Discount, their best stock of HD-DVD (including The Warriors, Apollo 13 and Hot Fuzz) is listed as "discontinued." Amazon's stock is still strong, and most of their titles have been reduced to $9.99. There's clearly a day on the horizon when retail HD-DVDs are non-existant online and eBay and other used outlets will be the only way to go. The bright side of this is that prices everywhere are extremely appealing, and if you've created a wish list for HD-DVDs, you should be able to cross many of them off these days (I know I have). On to this issue's scores:

Forbidden Planet: I was really looking forward to this one, as it has some of my favorite visuals of any movie. From the striking opening credits to the Id Monster's assault on the Krell lab, it's all among the best sci-fi imagery ever put on film. With that said, the transition to HD isn't all that groundbreaking, and the differences may only be noticed by those who have seen the movie multiple times. If you are one of those people, prepare to be delighted by how the Altair landscapes now look more realistic and certain scenes (like Altaira's walks in the jungle) have a 3-D quality to them due to the contrast created with the lush artificial backgrounds. Everything looks fantastic, but because it was filmed on a stage and not with natural light, Forbidden Planet's visuals don't "pop" like other HD-DVDs. Score: 6

Dune: This was a great surprise. Some HD-DVDs really give you the whoa factor, and this is one of them, where you find yourself wondering how it could ever look any better. Credit some of this to David Lynch's fantastic production design -- every scene in the Emperor's chambers looks amazing, with the gold costumes and objects naturally shimmering. It honestly looks like it was filmed a couple of years ago, not in 1984. Unfortunately, some of the special effects don't hold up under the increased visual scrutiny, but it's a minor quibble. Score: 9

Grand Prix: I'm really glad I picked this up for $9.99 when I did, it's now listed as "unavailable" on Amazon, with used copies starting at $30.35. Since it was filmed in the Cinerama format, I had high hopes for Grand Prix, and was not disappointed. In particular, the opening scenes at the Monaco Grand Prix are a true wonder. Helicopter shots of the Monte Carlo crowd leave your eyes darting back and forth at all the perfect detail on display, and director John Frankenheimer's famous bumper-cam shots during the race are everything you would hope for. Along with The Searchers and The Adventures of Robin Hood, this disc can truly show off the format. Score: 10

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: Didn't know what to expect with this one, but was excited to see how it would translate. The result is good, but certainly not great. The movie is obviously filled with color, but it's also shot with a mostly soft lens that keeps it from making a big leap with HD. Certain shots really pop, like the early candy shop scene, but once we get inside the factory, it starts looking ordinary. The "Pure Imagination" scene is an all-time favorite of mine and never fails to impress, but beyond presenting perfectly-defined colors, the scene in HD never really leaps off the screen the way you would want it to. Score: 6

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The French love Jerry Lewis* and Dennis Hopper (and bread)

Good to see Dennis Hopper being awarded the Chevalier de la legion des Arts et des Lettres from France recently. Can't say I've heard of anyone else receiving that, but it's a nice-enough sounding honor, and it looks cool. Still, the reason for this post is the picture below, it's crying out for a caption. Here's my attempt, what's yours?

"Thank you. Amazing, that a man who once uttered 'Fuck you, you fucking fuck' on screen, could be awarded an honor such as this."

*And yes, Moviezzz, the title of this post was for you.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Leave nothing but the gold

If you watched any football this weekend, you probably saw the latest Leave Nothing commercial by Nike. The last one was directed by Michael Mann, and featured the great theme from The Last of the Mohicans. Next up? David Fincher, and here's his effort:

I think I like this one a little more. Mann's commercial is a little anti-climactic, and Fincher has a better story by starting the tale from birth. What really gets my attention is the song he uses, and I can't believe how long it took me to figure out what it was from. Sure, there are extra drum beats and cues, but I should have recognized it right away. It's also interesting to know Fincher put this together -- how long did the production take, and with that in mind, how much did it cost? One more thing: throughout this entire commercial, do we ever see any recognizable Nike products?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The kid's got potential

"Hey Dad, what's this Straw Dogs movie about? What kind of dogs are in it?"

"Eh, only way to find out is to just watch it for myself."

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Yes, you can go home to EV-426 again

Ever since Bill Paxson's character said "game over, man!" Aliens has been a movie pleading for a high quality video game to call its own, and miraculously we finally have that game in Aliens: Extermination. I say miraculously because 1. This is actually the third attempt at creating an Aliens arcade game (1990's Aliens was a standard side-scroller shooter -- albeit with a fun final stage based on the climactic power loader scene -- while 1993's Alien 3: The Gun merged the second and third installments of the series into a well-meaning, but familiar shoot-em-up), and 2. the arcade game industry is currently in its dimmest state in decades, with paltry new offerings that focus mostly on novelty. Through all of this, we have Aliens: Extermination, and even though it came out in 2006, it's still new to most of us since actually finding a newly-released arcade game is a game itself.

I had little hope of finding Extermination after reading about it last year, but as the saying goes: "Walk down the wrong alley in Boise, and if your expectations are low enough, you can find just about anything." Well I found it, and damn am I happy I did. Remember the Terminator 2 arcade game? Arnie himself wouldn't go back to that game after playing Extermination, it has to be considered one of the best movie-based video games of all time.

As you can see from the image above Extinction is a shoot-em-up, but it brings a lot to the table than simply pulling the trigger and aiming. It takes you deep into the Aliens world, giving you the role of a marine landing on EV-426, just as in the movie. You'll see a few Aliens landmarks and moments here and there, but it's mostly a new spin on the movie with the likes of android enemies and different strains of the alien species.

The most familiar Aliens artifact is the life-size pulse rifle that serves as the game's controller -- it comes complete with the familiar two-digit ammo counter on the back. For those of you who have fantasized about Michael Biehn lovingly explaining how to load a magazine into a machine gun, you've found your game. The ammo counter on the gun is crucial, as unlike most games of the genre you actually have a limited amount of your base ammunition, and once it's gone you'll be reduced to using a humble pistol against the hordes of aliens. In addition to pulse rifle rounds, a button under the gun's barrel allows you to operate a flame thrower and another button lets you throw grenades and laser-guided missiles. These controls open up a myriad of offensive options, as in any given fire fight you could find yourself firing the pulse rifle, flame thrower, grenade and pistol in rapid succession without taking your eyes off the battle at hand.

The action in the game is as furious as you want it, and at some parts you may find yourself screaming "Oh you want some too?" like Paxson's character does -- unfortunately there's no option to pull the pin on a grenade when you're out of ammo like our fellow marine Vasquez. It gets so chaotic that the rumbling gun often leaves your hand feeling like mush -- so walk it off, OK, marine? With four long missions taking you through every corner and depth of EV-426, Aliens: Extermination is a dream for any fan of the movie ... as long as you can find it.

Friday, October 03, 2008

October: No rust for the wicked

It's October again, and that means we all begin our precious Halloween month traditions: painting your house black, renting a hurse, digging graves for the "mock" cemetary in the front yard, sharpening your knives, training the neighborhood crows to "caw" when that certain person walks by. You know, Halloween stuff! If you have enough time to spare in between your sick traditions, put these blogs on your daily routine, as they're putting on quite a show this month:
  • Moon in the Gutter: Jeremy Richey is celebrating the month with a 31-day salute to Halloween. I know Jeremy will have lots of tasty treats in honor of the horror classic, and he's started it off with a look at the connections the movie has to his home state of Kentucky.

  • Evil Eye Theatre: Piper has donned his Evil Clown guise for the month and his site is packed full of so many scares this month, your driver's license picture may well turn into a skull. Lots of fun stuff up already, including an enlightening conversation between God and Satan.

  • Cinema Styles: Jonathan Lapper is holding his much anticipated October Kill Fest, an event that will span mutilated text, pictures and video. Jonathan has already given us some fresh meat in the form of that wonderfully terrifying Frank Capra classic. He has also suggested to change your blog moniker to something befitting of the season -- sounds fun, why not?

  • Arbogast on Film: Arbo has pledged to honor 31 memorable screen screams through the month, good thing too since he possesses the rare talent to analyze screams the same way another person might go on about a satisying plate of southwestern egg rolls.

  • The Kind of Face You Hate: Bill R. and his newly launched blog (love the name), is taking a month-long look at horror fiction, starting with Henry James and H.P. Lovecraft.

  • Others: You can be damn sure that the usual October suspects of Stacie Ponder, Dennis Cozzalio and Kindertrauma will offer at least one feast of a post in honor of the holiday, as they have in years past.

Myself? I have neglected to plan anything special for the month, though I did promise myself to revive my long-neglected Bava Beat series, focusing on some of my favorite Bava horrors.