“Fine, then you tell one scarier.” – Lisa Simpson
“Flashlight please.” – Bart Simpson
Ever since its beginning, the Treehouse of Horror series has depended on parodying, satirizing, and outright stealing from movies, television shows, and other stories. When The Simpsons was still itself that meant taking familiar ideas, themes and stories and remaking them in the style, language and irony of Springfield. That sounds simple, but it’s an extremely delicate process. They had to inject enough original ideas and twists to keep things from feeling stale or rehashed, while at the same time not changing the original source material so much that it became unrecognizable. On top of that, they needed to tell a coherent story that didn’t require any knowledge of the source material from the viewer. Oh, and the whole thing had to take place in just a few minutes of screen time.
This is harder than it looks.
That intricate, multi-step dance is why the Treehouse of Horror series is so rightly famous. The Shining is two and a half hours long, but they got all of the major scenes and most of the ideas into seven minutes and worked jokes and humor into every piece of dialogue. Those classic episodes of The Twilight Zone take twenty minutes or more, but The Simpsons retold them in a third of the time and made them hilarious. They chopped “The Raven” down to five minutes, preserved the mood, the unrelenting bleakness, and the bottomless despair of the ending . . . and made it funny. As Zombie Simpsons has so often demonstrated, that isn’t easy to do, and screwing it up even a little can spoil the entire thing.
The craftsmanship and cultural span of those episodes is stunning, but they all have three things in common. The first is incredibly strong source material. The second was a remaking of that material into something that is recognizable to people familiar with the original, but still coherent, accessible and funny to people who aren’t. The third is the way the whole thing is both funny and scary, with moments that, if taken seriously, are truly terrifying, but that never lose their sense of humor.
Consider the very first “Treehouse of Horror”. The source material is incredibly famous from start to finish. The opening segment cribs from Poltergeist (a movie that directly spawned two sequels, indirectly spawned a television series, and is currently being remade) and a number of other classic American horror and haunted house tropes, including the ubiquitous “ancient Indian burial ground”. The second part takes its cues from The Twilight Zone, one of the most well known and critically acclaimed television series of all time. And the third retells a poem so famous that a couple of years later they named an NFL team after it.
That alone isn’t enough, of course. Each segment goes beyond what spawned it to give it that special Simpsons twist while remaining clear to people who’ve never encountered the originals. You don’t need to have seen any haunted house movies to get that the demonic house wants the Simpsons family gone, nor that it’s funny that Bart thinks his conscience wants him to kill his family. The suspicion that Kang and Kodos are planning to eat the Simpsons is baked into the entire story, but throughout it there are jokes about the family, about space dust, about cable television costs. Thanks to the clever wraparound with Bart and Lisa discussing “The Raven” in the context of modern times, we get both the poem itself and the idea that poems don’t carry the same weight they once did. The Simpsons mocked and retold the originals, and did so in a way that rewards you for knowing them but doesn’t penalize you for not knowing them.
You don’t need to have read these, but it’s nice if you have.
Finally, Treehouse of Horror episodes contain genuinely scary and gory moments, but they are always leavened with plenty of knowing asides and gags, often right in the same scene or even the same shot. This means that we see the alien spaceship abducting the pitiful humans, but we also see the beam that sucks them up fail to lift Homer until it gets some additional help. The walls of the house bleed profusely, but Marge just takes it as a sign that the house needs a woman’s touch. Accompanied by swelling and ominous music, Homer lies defeated in the inescapable shadow of the raven, but the black hearted creature laughs the same way Bart does when he gets one over on his dad.
You can see those three characteristics throughout the good years of Treehouse of Horror. You can also see the complete failure of all three of them throughout “Treehouse of Horror XXII”. Let’s start with #1: strong source material.
Dexter is a decent little show, but it’s also confined to premium cable and doesn’t have what you’d call a mass following. The same is true of 127 Hours and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Both of those are well regarded independent movies, neither of them is famous. Avatar is certainly famous, but what, if anything, it has to do with Halloween or even Halloween related themes is a bit of a mystery. But that just brings us to Zombie Simpsons’ failure on point #2: making the story derive from the original while adding enough to make it your own and keeping it entertaining for people who aren’t familiar with it already.
Even people who elected not to see Avatar are probably familiar with the basic story, if only because the marketing and media coverage were everywhere and the premise of “white guy goes native” isn’t exactly novel. But Zombie Simpsons didn’t do anything but recreate a couple of disconnected scenes and props. For it to even qualify as a parody it would have needed to have some kind of plot or resolution, which it manifestly doesn’t.
The beginning is Bart in a wheelchair before becoming an alien, but that entire idea is forgotten as soon as he steps into the tube. The middle is taken up with a love story and pregnancy (huh?), which are promptly dropped when it comes time for the goofy battle at the end. That little action piece consisted of one thing over and over again: an animal you’ve never seen doing something to generic background figures you don’t know. The whole scene has nothing to do with Simpsons and resembles Avatar in only the vaguest way. The segment is so disjointed, senseless and irrelevant that it actually doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve seen the movie, which is conceivably the only positive thing about it.
Was this in the director’s cut?
Even that small mercy is absent from the other three segments, however. If you didn’t know what 127 Hours was about, what would you have made of that opening? Homer driving to the desert and falling into a canyon only makes sense if you know the story beforehand. The same is true of seeing Flanders do things like tie his laundry bag and spread jelly on his toast. If you haven’t seen the opening sequence of Dexter, none of it makes any sense because there is nothing there besides Flanders repeating it.
Obviously, the title sequence isn’t the only part of the Flanders as Dexter segment, but that just takes us to #3: managing to be both funny and scary at the same time. The basic premise there was that Flanders thinks God wants him to kill people, and he starts by decapitating Burns:
This scene is, quite literally, bloodless.
Even though it involves two of the show’s biggest secondary characters, there is nothing scary, gory or funny about this. If it were going to be funny, there’d need to be a joke. If it were going to be scary, there’d need to be some tension or suspense. None of those things are present, and we’re left with a scene that has no impact. Compare that to another removed head, this one in Season 5:
Funnier and gorier, much better.
Here we’ve got a joke (the disembodied head of Flanders being his usual cheerful self) as well as some nice dramatic irony (Bart not being able to escape from the gremlin). It’s scary and funny, which is what makes it so good. Flanders as Dexter has none of that, it just trots out a few pointless murders before running out of ideas so completely that it has to have God and Satan show up out of thin air.
The paralyzed Homer skit suffers from the same problems. Its basic premise, Homer gets paralyzed and communicates by farting, is so thin, stupid and tension free that it’s impossible for any part of it to be scary or funny. After that quickly runs its course, they’re left with dropping something vaguely Halloween-y out of nowhere.
They ran out of things to do in a segment that’s only four and a half minutes long.
When the apparently radioactive spider finally does reach Homer, it crawls in and out of his head for a while. Again, this is neither scary nor funny. Homer’s in no danger (he’s already paralyzed after all), and even if he was in danger we in the audience wouldn’t know it because this spider, unrelated to everything else in the segment, just showed up from nothing. It isn’t funny for the simple reason that there is no joke. Creepy? Maybe. Funny? Nope.
The Treehouse of Horror series was meticulously based off of brilliant material, given a Simpsons shine to make it work for anyone, and managed to be scary-funny and funny-scary all the while. You don’t need to have seen Poltergeist or any other haunted house movie to get “Bad Dream House”, just as you don’t need to have seen The Twilight Zone or read any Poe to get the other two segments from “Treehouse of Horror”.
In “Treehouse of Horror XXII”, on the other hand, the audience would be lost without knowing the original material, which itself mostly came from things only a few people have seen. Even that wasn’t bad enough for Zombie Simpsons, though. They took their weaker source material and ignored it where possible, crammed it into nonsense where they couldn’t ignore it, and generally spent their time doing their usual routine of jumping from one lifeless scene to another. Ultimately, this was less a Halloween episode than it was one of the “storytelling” episodes where they just have three (or four) unrelated segments, and even those were nonsensical and boring.