Wednesday, 11 October 2017

October Nightmares III #11: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror Episodes (1990 - ) - [Annoyed Grunt]

The Simpsons has been a cultural milestone for such a long time that it's difficult to remember a time when it wasn't on our screens. Infinitely quotable and rewatchable, The Simpsons, like earthy Lovecraftian abominations, has seemingly existed since time immemorial. As with anything which has been going as long as The Simpsons - it officially started in '89 after three seasons of shorts of The Tracey Ullman Show -  there's bound to be a decline into mediocrity and disappointment. Just ask my parents: I'm twenty-seven and I've been nothing but a disappointment to them for the past twelve years.

Such as it is with The Simpsons, it's still going but hasn't been truly good since the year 2000. One aspect of The Simpsons which has remained consistently watchable, however, is the annual Treehouse of Horror episode. These horror-themed episodes, consisting of three segments apiece, have aired every October since the second season in 1990. Well, when else would they air - Christmas?

What makes the Treehouse of Horror episodes great is that, because they're non-canon, the writers able to tap into the anarchic energy and sharp satire which characterised the show's golden years (1990 - 1997). And because they're non-canon you can live out your fantasies and watch a beloved character like Milhouse get pulverised in a giant blender and be safe in the knowledge that everything is still coming up Milhouse.

Bare in mind these episodes are written by the same writers who churn out twenty-odd episodes of hackneyed 'humour' and celebrity cameo-infested storylines a year. It makes you wonder what they do when they're not writing the Halloween episodes; maybe Matt Groening has become an Ebenezer Scrooge type in his old age, and only refills the cocaine bucket in October.

Taken as entities separate from the rest of the show, the Treehouse of Horror episodes can be seen as an anthology show with a regular pool of characters. And what a cast this show has on hand. I'm not going to explore the characters in any great detail because you either already know and love them all, or you're a filthy liar. Well which is it, punk? There's the family - made up of eternally dumb patriarch Homer (Dan Castellaneta), dark horse matriarch Marge (Julie Kavner); mischievous hellion Bart (Nancy Cartwright), psychotic baby Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), and Lisa (Yeardley Smith): she's the one no one likes - and supporting this dysfunctional lot is a cast of literally hundreds of characters.

A criminally incompetent police chief, comically-hopeless alcoholic, stuffy principal; aggressively kind religious neighbour, sex-pest bartender, evil billionaire nuclear plant owner; cynical teachers, rednecks, washed-up actors, corrupt politicians, sleazy lawyers, negligent doctors, and lazy blue colour workers. Every facet of modern American (and human) life overturned and ripe for satire. This has resulted in hundreds of characters who will be remembered long after the handful of people who voice them are obliterated in Kim Jong-Un's victory fire.

The Treehouse of Horror episodes draw their humour from placing beloved characters into genre fiction. Homer, for example, can go from comical portrayal of the average American worker to an axe-wielding maniac, zombie slayer, or a Roddy Piper expy uncovering aliens disguised as our rulers and their "nude conspiracies". Or straight-laced Principal Skinner becoming a child-eating serial killer alongside the other teachers; or Groundskeeper Willie who transforms into a Freddy Krueger  type and gets children via "skeleton power" their dreams.

There're neigh-on an infinite number of examples of stand-out character moments I could provide, but rest assured it's all played for laughs. You don't even need any prior investment in the characters as they're essentially an exaggeration of already exaggerated characters. As for the stories themselves, they're a mix of original stories and parodies of classic movies and books. I actually owe quite a lot to my formative years watching The Treehouse of Horror episodes as most of them serve as a baby's first version of a classic movie.

I'd seen The Simpsons writers' take on; A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, Omega Man, Dracula, Night Gallery, The Fly (1959 version), Twilight Zone, The Raven, The Blob, and The Amityville Horror - long before I was acquainted with the actual versions. It's sort of like when you first got to drink shandy at Christmas and started thinking you were a proper grown-up.

And lost your baby legs

Regarding that last one (Amityville), there was a parody in the first Treehouse segment called 'Bad Dream House' which used to shit me right up. James Earl Jones voiced the possessed house - a house where the walls ran red with blood - and he put on a proper haunting voice as he begged Lisa to take a butcher knife and slaughter her family.

The first Treehouse episode is probably the 'scariest' overall as it has an segment with the octopus aliens Kang and Kodos which had a full-blown nihilistic ending. And there was the classic The Raven segment, with Bart, as the titular Raven, and his substitution of "eat my shorts" for "nevermore". In fact the first four Treehouse episodes are the most renegade, even having to have Marge and Homer do content warnings like they're presenting a Tumblr blog about the existence of men. After Treehouse IV the episodes get bloodier and more violent (Groundskeeper Wille takes an axe to the back on three instances in one episode) but feel more far more routine than subversive.

Though the Treehouse episodes remain excellent to this day, the modern focus on current movie parodies takes some of the spark out. The thrill was feeling like your older mate was describing to you all the most gruesome horror films he had seen, and knowing that was the only way you'd see them (until you turned eighteen or the internet was invented, whichever came first). If kids want to see Harry Potter, Jumanji, Avatar, or (god forbid) Twilight movies, then they'll watch them. Back in my halcyon days as a whipper-snapper, I couldn't exactly watch Dawn of the Dead without employing childish chicanery.

In the old episodes, the on-point humour and channelling of the forbidden produced some truly great moments. Like Homer dancing nude in the church when he thinks he's the last man alive; or Homer living the dream and shooting his non-zombified neighbour to death during a zombie apocalypse. Come to think of it, this show could be why I've never had a successful interaction with another human being.

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