Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: "The Simpsons'" Halloween special has managed to get better with time. Here are my favorite segments
Treehouse of Horror VIII: “Fly vs. Fly”
The various versions of “The Fly” are reimagined as pure slapstick comedy in this marvelous segment, which finds Bart playing around with a teleporter, merging Snowball the Cat with Santa’s Little Helper and becoming increasingly reckless from then on out, hatching a stupid plan to turn himself into a half-fly superhero and ending up a pathetic grotesquerie with a gigantic fly head. The comic timing in this episode is a marvel; the cuts from setup to punch line, and from one absurd image to another, have a master drummer’s sense of rhythm.
Treehouse of Horror III: “Hungry Are the Damned”
This one takes the premise of classic “Twilight Zone” episode “To Serve Man” — seemingly benevolent extraterrestrials set up Earth as one big meat locker while promising eternal benevolence — and turns it into a wonderful shaggy dog story, with the imperiled Simpsons trying to get to the bottom of what, precisely, the visiting octopods Kang and Kodos really want. The kidnapped family is being taken to a “great feast” on the creatures’ home planet; there’s even a cook on board the spaceship who’s called Serak the Preparer. The creatures’ guidebook is titled “How to Cook for Humans,” which is soon amended to “How to Cook Forty Humans,” and then finally “How to Cook for Forty Humans.” There’s even a sly jab at the moralizing endings of 1950s anthology sci-fi series, with the Simpsons getting sent back home for insulting the extraterrestrials, and Lisa wondering whether humans are the real monsters.
Treehouse of Horror VIII: “Easy-Bake Coven”
A terrific sendup of classic witch stories as well as “The Crucible,” this one finds Marge being accused of witchcraft and tried the old-fashioned way, via a trial that is guaranteed to result in her death. (When Moe accuses Marge of witchcraft, Mayor Quimby proposes a test wherein Marge will be tossed off a cliff while riding a broomstick; if she flies away, it means she’s a witch, but if she falls, she’s innocent.) Turns out Marge really is a witch — complete with green skin — and shares a secret mountain lair with her sisters, Patty and Selma. The jokes write themselves.
Treehouse of Horror VII: “The Thing and I”
A sendup of horrific twin stories — with special nods to “Dead Ringers” and “The Dark Half” — this one posits that Bart Simpson has a secret, evil double named Hugo, formerly his conjoined twin, who lives in the attic and subsists on a diet of fish heads. A deftly plotted and sometimes unexpectedly creepy episode with a great twist ending.
Treehouse of Horror VI: “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores”
After Homer steals the giant doughnut from the Lard Lad statue, a lightning storm brings Springfield’s gigantic commercial statuary to life, and they terrorize the town, often behaving according to their function or character. An ad executive composes a song (“Just Don’t Look”) that robs the creatures of their power. This segment mocks commerciality on a commercial-driven network, but in a way that feels sincere and reasonable rather than preachy. It also features some of the show’s densest compositions; sometimes there’s so much going on in every frame that you can’t keep track of it all.
Treehouse of Horror IX: “The Terror of Tiny Toon”
After Marge forbids Bart and Lisa to watch “The Itchy and Scratchy Show” and takes the batteries out of their remote control, Bart replaces it with a bit of plutonium purloined from Homer’s toolbox, and the kids are warped into the world of Itchy and Scratchy. Even more visually impressive than the “Treehouse of Horror” norm, this segment lets the show’s animators demonstrate the breadth of their knowledge of cartoon style; some images are as simultaneously amusing and creepy as moments from 1930s Warner Brothers and Max Fleischer cartoons. The segment also foregrounds the show’s complicated relationship to graphic violence, which lets it wallow in blood lust for comedic effect while critiquing our (and their) bottomless thirst for it.
Treehouse of Horror XX: There’s No Business like Moe Business
Maybe the most formally daring of all “Treehouse of Horror” segment, this brilliant segment is treated as a play within the show — more specifically a Broadway musical that seems like a mix of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sweeney Todd.” It’s set in a bar; Homer falls into the basement and is impaled on pipes that feed his blood into the tap; Homer’s blood has an enchanting effect on Marge, who finds herself giving into Moe’s romantic overtures. Things go wrong, just as they often do in a real theater performance, and there are frequent cutaways to the packed audience, which includes “Treehouse” regulars Kang and Kodos.
Treehouse of Horror XIX: “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse”
The opening of this segment is far from the first “Peanuts” reference that “The Simpsons” has offered. But it might be the richest, from the Vince Guaraldi-like score to the sly way that it reenacts the choreography, color scheme and draftsmanship of the beloved special “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” to its wonderfully weird minor touches. (It never occurred to me that Homer Simpson had Snoopy-like qualities, but whaddayaknow, he does!)
If “It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse” had stuck with straightforward parody, it still might have been memorable anyway. But as is so often the case in “Simpsons” episodes, this one starts in one mode and then switches, suddenly and delightfully, to another, and becomes brilliantly unhinged. When the Grand Pumpkin finally arrives, he’s one of the most magnificently detailed monsters in the show’s history, issuing pronouncements about humanity and pumpkin-kind in a pompous, fairy-tale bad guy voice. The filmmakers have given serious thought to the culture and psychology of giant, demonic gourds; the Grand Pumpkin is horrified by the atrocities that humans commit against his people, but he’s got his own hypocrisies as well. When the Grand Pumpkin invades the school’s Halloween party and wreaks havoc, Nelson tries to hold him off by threatening violence against another pumpkin in the room. “Touch me and I’ll cut your friend!” Nelson warns him. “What do I care?” the monster counters. “That’s a yellow pumpkin.” “You’re a racist!” Nelson exclaims. “All pumpkins are racist!” the Grand Pumpkin bellows. “The difference is, I admit it!”
Treehouse of Horror V: “The Shinning”
“The Simpsons” has a long, proud history of parodying both Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick; this great segment, set in Mr. Burns’ deserted mansion, is a two-fer, sending up Kubrick’s 1980 film version of King’s novel about a caretaker who loses his mind in a haunted hotel and goes on a rampage against his family. The terrifying line “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” gets Homer-ized into “No beer and no TV make Homer go crazy”; the triggering moment comes when a ghostly Moe (standing in for the spectral barkeep in “The Shining”) tells Homer that he has to murder his family to get a beer. Visually, this is a brilliant segment, capturing Kubrick’s eerie distortions of color, movement and space while mocking and reveling in the film’s iconic moments. Voice actor Dan Castellaneta’s work here is magnificent; he’s not just doing Homer doing Jack Nicholson, he actually seems possessed by the spirit of Nicholson’s verging-on-Kabuki outrageousness, and the animators visualize it with giddy flair. Homer: “No TV and no beer make Homer something something.” Marge: “Go crazy?” Homer: “Don’t mind if I dew!! Haw-bluhbluhbluhbluhbluh!” The way Homer’s face distorts and his arms and hands clutch into bizarre positions suggests what Joe Cocker might look like if he were repeatedly struck by lightning in the middle of a song. Casting Groundskeeper Willie as the Scatman Crothers character is beyond perfect. Willie to Bart: “You’ve got the shinning!” Bart: “You mean the shining.” Willie: “Shhh! You wanna get sued?
Treehouse of Horror IV: “The Devil and Homer Simpson”
Any “Treehouse of Horror” segment that starts with the premise that goody-two-shoes Ned Flanders is secretly the devil is already halfway toward “classic” status. Add purloined elements from several 1950s anthology shows in which characters cut deals with Satan, and make the name on the contract “Homer Simpson,” and you’re over the finish line. This episode in which Homer casually offers to sell his soul for a doughnut and Ned/Satan takes him up on it offers some of the craziest images and situations in “Treehouse” history: Satan’s frustration at realizing that for Homer, being forced to eat millions of doughnuts in Hell is not a punishment; Lionel Hutz, attorney at law, representing Homer in a legal proceeding against the Dark One and messing things up as usual; the hilarious last-minute revelation that Homer already promised his soul to Marge. (Homer ate their entire wedding cake before the ceremony and ended up in the hospital.) The trial is one of the greatest set pieces in the show’s history, with the Grim Reaper presiding over a jury that includes John Dillinger, Benedict Arnold, John Wilkes Booth, Lizzie Borden, Blackbeard, the starting lineup of the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers and Richard Nixon. Nixon was alive when this episode aired, but Satan explains that it’s part of a deal they worked out.
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.