From the start, the annual Treehouse of Horror specials were incredibly ambitious, this notion of departing from the “normal” world of the show proper into this fantasy realm where aliens, zombies and other ghoulish creatures could roam free, and anything was possible. The doors were open to do anything, and this was reflected not just in the writing, but in the animation as well. Whether it be attempting a more dramatic, suspenseful feel, or emulating the style of a horror movie parody, the Halloween shows were always a joy to look at. So, in the holiday spirit, Animation Alley has been resurrected to examine the classic Treehouse of Horrors. I don’t know how many I’ll get through before October is out, I’m hoping at least up to the first eight or so, but we’ll see.
“Bad Dream House,” directed by Wes Archer, starts out normally enough with the Simpsons moving into their suspiciously cheap house, only to find creepier and creepier things that lie within. Marge is adamant they leave, but Homer, still blindsided by the great deal he got, suggests they sleep on it. Not the best move, as it turns out, where the family is manipulated in the middle of the night to kill each other. We’re led to believe that Marge is also possessed, we see her brandishing a rather large knife. As the other four move in for the kill, we get these quick cuts of them laughing maniacally in a background bathed in blood red, then we see Marge with a stern look as well, lifting her knife… to continue making her sandwich, as the BG fades into a much cooler green. I love these shots of the family too, so insane and creepy. A grown man, two children and a baby attempting to murder each other, I can’t believe they got away with this in 1990.
The Bad Dream House gets some real personality not only in its voice (I love when it gets beleaguered and whiny at the end: “Leave me alone! I don’t have to entertain you!”), but in its fluctuating appearance. The walls “breathe,” the tone of the walls change based on what happens (especially great when the house goes dark for a moment after Marge finishes her explosive tirade). My favorite bit is when Bart’s incessantly asking for the walls to bleed again, and the paneling of the house squashes and stretches, with a wonderful squeaking sound. It looks like for the left that they just overexposed the background layer for that effect, to make the crimson walls on the right all the more rich.
“Hungry are the Damned,” by Rich Moore, introduces us to our favorite Rigelians Kang and Kodos, and is essentially one gigantic mislead that it seems like the aliens intend to dine upon our favorite family. The shot of Serak the Preparer gazing hungrily at Marge always cracks me up, and Homer is none the wiser, of course (“Your wife is quite a dish!” “Oh, thanks!”) But through the whole show, if you still hadn’t picked up on the dozens of overt clues, we get the shot on the right, a low shot when the plate covers are removed, we see Homer and Marge’s heads right there on platters.
During Lisa’s discovery of the aliens’ true intentions, we see a lot of the ship bathed in red, then during the suspenseful reveal, our characters awash in a dramatic blue hue. Even better is when the tone keeps switching from this back to normal during Kang and Lisa’s back and forth regarding the book’s actual title: How to Cook Humans, How to Cook For Humans, then finally, How to Cook For Forty Humans.
David Silverman’s “The Raven” is an absolute marvel; with the short on paper simply being the infamous Poe poem, I guess that was fair license to just go nuts with amazing, engaging direction. But before getting to the thick of that, we have this hilarious shot of a terrified Homer clinging to his massive chair. It’s our first look at how while he is subbing for the narrator of this dramatic work, he’s still our Homer.
Going out to check the tapping on his chamber door, we get this great shot up from below as Homer gazes unto… darkness, and nothing more. What a haunting shot of an empty hallway, all in a sickly green to contrast the mostly cool blues of the study. Coming back inside, we continue panning upward on Homer walking forward, still tense, before we get to the reveal of the Bart Raven.
Homer finally snaps at the Raven, and Dan Castellaneta’s rock star performance is supplemented by all these cuts to different angles. It adds to the energy of Homer’s angry read, leading perfectly to his breaking point in trying to wring that bird’s neck.
Finally, our last shot, where we start on the Raven still perched with an ominous glow around it, and pan down to see Homer staring up at him. The swelling music, James Earl Jones’ narration… they all add upon this drawing of Homer, transfixed on this creature representing his inescapable misery, truly defeated and unable to turn away. The Groening art style isn’t exactly the most expressive, but the talented artists who work on it always seem to manage to make them evoke so much more than they should.
That’s it for Treehouse of Horror number one. Next up… number two!