Tag Archives: the devil and daniel webster

The Best and Worst of the Treehouse of Horror

As part of my pre-Halloween festivities, I’ve been watching Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episodes. Well, I recently finished rewatching all 21 of them! Believe me, that’s not an easy task, especially since most of the later ones are something of a slog. Thus, to celebrate The Simpsons’ outstanding achievement in the field of horror excellence, here’s a breakdown of the worst and best “Treehouse of Horror” segments. (For the woefully uninitiated, each “Treehouse” episode consists of three segments, sometimes with introductions or interstitial jokes.)

The Worst

Pretty much everything after season 9 or so gets pretty mediocre, but a few late-season segments stand out as utterly abominable. Generally, it’s because they 1) think that “scary” means “has endless, meaningless bloodshed”; 2) think that “no rules” means “none of it needs any internal logic whatsoever”; and 3) they just aren’t funny, at all. Pretty bad offenders include “B.I.: Bartificial Intelligence” from Treehouse of Horror XVI, “Married to the Blob” from XVII, and “How to Get Ahead in Dead-vertising” from XIX. Each one has numerous pointless deaths with little compensation in the form of, say, humor or wit. The last one is also completely incoherent – especially when compared to the earlier segment it’s ripping off, VI‘s “Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores.”

But for violent, unfunny incoherence, nothing can really top XVIII’s “Mr. and Mrs. Simpson” and XIII’s “The Fright to Creep and Scare Harms.” Here’s why: “Mr. and Mrs. Simpson” is just a one-note joke with no connection to Halloween in which Marge and Homer kill people and then try to kill each other. It’s also even more mean-spirited than the segment that precedes it (“E.T., Go Home,” in which Homer happily kills an entire army of aliens), as they murder Chief Wiggum and make love on his corpse. How did this turn into a particularly awful episode of Family Guy?

“The Fright to Creep and Scare Harms,” though, is somehow worse, beginning with its pun clusterfuck of a title, and continuing through its non sequitur-laced storyline. Lisa doesn’t know Billy the Kid’s real name? Billy the Kid opposed gun violence in his epitaph? Lisa can ban weapons, just like in Treehouse of Horror II, except now she doesn’t need the monkey’s paw? Cowboys can come back to life of their own volition? Five gun-toting skeletons is all it takes to conquer Springfield, and that merits using a time machine? Jesus, it’s just so bad, and negligible as entertainment. It’s fitting, I guess, that Treehouse of Horror XIII ends with Kang and Kodos making a cryptic “joke” about how a skull-shaped island looks like their number 4.

Granted, I think some enjoyment can be gleaned from later Treehouse episodes. The stylized homages that end XVII and XIX (of the 1930s and Peanuts, respectively) show a little artistry, and I think the ending of “Heck House” from XVIII makes it easily the best Treehouse segment of the past decade. Other than that, though, it’s a chore to get through joyless dreck like “Reaper Madness” or “Survival of the Fattest.” So let’s stop being so negative, and hit up the segments that are brilliant, hilarious, and nightmare-inspiring…

The Best

10. “Bad Dream House” from Treehouse of Horror I

The very first Treehouse segment, it reflects some of the growing pains that afflicted the series’ first couple seasons, but is nonetheless a keeper. It’s a parody of haunted house movies like Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror as the Simpsons move into an ultra-cheap house that happens to drip blood and whisper murderous thoughts into its tenants’ ears. The segment after it – “Hungry Are the Damned,” introducing Kang and Kodos – is also rich, but I’m a sucker for haunted houses, and Harry Shearer really wrings out the pathos in the house’s dilemma. (“Life with the Simpsons. What choice do I have?”) Marge’s outbursts, the interdimensional vortex, and the knife fight confirm the first-ever segment as one of the best.

9. “Lisa’s Nightmare” from Treehouse of Horror II

As I alluded to earlier, this segment sees the family trip to Marrakech lead Homer to purchase a wish-granting monkey’s paw, à la W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw.” I love how this episode gives every family member a chance to shine (except Marge) via their deepest wishes: Maggie for a golden pacifier, Bart for wealth and fame (which becomes a meta-fictional moment as the Simpsons grow too ubiquitous), Lisa for peace on earth (showcasing her naïve idealism, since it’s promptly conquered by aliens), and Homer for a turkey sandwich and nothing but a turkey sandwich. Great moments include the sharply satirical joke about escalating weaponry (“bigger boards and bigger nails…”) as well as Flanders’ happy ending.

8. “The Devil and Homer Simpson” from Treehouse of Horror IV

I recently wrote about The Devil and Daniel Webster, which this segment parodies; here, Flanders unforgettably stands in for Walter Huston as the Author of All Lies, complete with horns and a forked tail. Homer’s gluttony finally gets the better of him, as he eats an entire scrump-diddley-umptious donut in exchange for his soul. When he goes on trial for his soul, the Simpsons must battle Lionel Hutz’s sleazy incompetence and a jury of the damned. Hell is exceedingly well-animated here, as are Flanders’ demon henchmen, and the ending combines emotional sincerity with bitter irony. Just like the novel/movie it’s based on, “The Devil and Homer Simpson” sneaks plenty of commentary about the American family into its tale of infernal bargaining.

7. “The Genesis Tub” from Treehouse of Horror VII

This segment – based on “The Little People,” a Twilight Zone episode I’ve never seen – is disturbing in all the right ways. An improbable scientific mishap (static electricity + a tooth submerged in coke?) causes Lisa to accidentally create a microscopic civilization, which advances at a fast pace. Soon they’re experiencing religious schisms (“I’ve created Lutherans!”) and using spaceships to attack Bart in his sleep. It’s akin to the Futurama episode “Godfellas,” but gets the job done in 1/3 the time, and ends in the same unresolved fashion as many of the greatest Treehouse triumphs. “Citizen Kang,” the segment that comes right after “The Genesis Tub,” came close to making this list, if only for the politically trenchant line “I voted for Kodos.”

6. “Clown Without Pity” from Treehouse of Horror III

This is based on a Twilight Zone episode I have seen, “Living Doll” – which is scary as hell and stars Telly Savalas (both good things). It hits all the bases: it makes fun of Grandpa, references Gremlins, and attacks corporate irresponsibility. Like the best Treehouse segments, it also manages to be razor-sharp in its comedy and absolutely terrifying at the same time. Just look for the fangs on the Krusty doll, or listen for the nonstop flood of one-liners, like Kent Brockman’s pollution update, Patty’s deadpan reaction to seeing Homer naked, Krusty’s seduction of Malibu Stacy, etc., etc. – and all this in just 7 minutes.

5. “Homer³” from Treehouse of Horror VI

This segment is justly famous for its pioneering use of computer animation, but that’s not the (only) reason it’s on my list. Despite the laughs, which (like donuts) are plentiful, I found it intensely scary in my childhood, and that impression has not abated during the intervening years. While trying to escape Patty and Selma’s impending visit, Homer slips through a portal behind the bookshelf and gets trapped in the third dimension. I’m not sure why, but primitive 3D animation is inherently pretty scary. When it sort of collapses on itself, then it’s really scary. When it breaks Homer into fragments (including a mouth that goes on screaming “CRAP!”), that’s when we reach intensely scary, and when it drops Homer into real-world Los Angeles in the mid-’90s and rolls credits… well, that’s a conclusion that mystifies and terrifies me to this day. Which, after all, is what Halloween’s all about. Well done, “Homer³”!

4. “Terror at 5½ Feet” from Treehouse of Horror IV

Inspired by one of the great Twilight Zone episodes (the Shatner-starring “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”), this segment is damn near perfect and deeply, viscerally scary. As observed on the segment’s audio commentary, the animators succeeded in making the gremlin work within The Simpsons‘ established visual aesthetic, and that contributes a lot to the story’s success. The gremlin’s demonic appearance and behavior are even worse when mixed with Skinner’s doubts about Bart’s sanity, and all the hilarious little touches (Hans Moleman’s grisly death, the flares in Martin’s shorts, Homer’s air horn) make it that much better. And, whew, the ending. That’s just fucking nightmarish. “Heidily-ho, Bart!”

3-1. “The Shinning,” “Time and Punishment,” and “Nightmare Cafeteria” from Treehouse of Horror V

I already wrote a long, detailed essay on why I love this episode, so there’s not much else to say. Every time I watch it, I just sit back and marvel at the genius. I’m blown away by how the Simpsons writers and animators could integrate horror and comedy so well, packing so much dense, allusive humor into just 22 minutes, and I’m grateful that they did. This episode contains easily my three favorite segments, and every part of it – from the opening credits to the bloody musical finale – continues to scare the shit out of me.

So, what did I miss? (For starters, “The Homega Man.”) What are your preferred tricks and treats from the Treehouse canon? Comment below and let the world know.


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Americana Satanica

William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) is a perfect movie for the tail end of the Great Depression. It’s about Jabez Stone (James Craig), an unlucky New Hampshire farmer, who strikes a Faustian bargain in order to stave off foreclosure. The movie is set in 1840, but the dilemma was just as familiar a century later. With its message of family values and collective action, it’s just as topical and vaguely socialist as Frank Capra classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe. But it’s also a smart blend of fantasy and horror, featuring still-impressive special effects and a diabolical, Oscar-nominated Walter Huston in the first of the title roles.

The other title role – the non-diabolical one – is played by Edward Arnold, who’s better-known for playing Wall Street fat cats (and sometimes fascists) in the afore-mentioned Capra political dramas. Webster initially acts as a folksy mentor figure for Jabez, but as his lucre expands, he casts aside Webster’s lessons and his mother’s piety, embracing the besotted “good life” with his new maid Belle, who comes from “over the mountain.” But when time comes to literally give the devil, aka Mr. Scratch, his due, Webster is back with all his orating power to reclaim Jabez’s soul.

Superficially, The Devil and Daniel Webster is a well-crafted assemblage of cornball Americana. The film’s dialogue is obsessed with national identity, rugged individualism, and the values of the common man. It equates bourgeois luxury, like the mansion that Jabez moves into, with selfishness, foreignness, and, well, Satan. Belle, after all, is played with seductive decadence by Simone Simon, the femme fatale of Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, flourishing that sexy French accent as she tempts Jabez away from his wife and son. And Jabez’s Bible-thumping mother is Jane Darwell, who represented “the people” as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

So when it’s plugged into the film’s early American framework, this casting is practically allegorical. Darwell is gratitude and hard work; Simone is excess and dirty fun. So the film was extremely timely, as much of an American national myth as anything John Ford was making at the time (The Grapes of Wrath included). But it was also stylistically advanced enough that it hasn’t lost any of its demonic charm. The film’s lighting and focus are manipulated to produce some very eerie visual effects.

The Devil and Daniel Webster shares its composer (Bernard Herrmann), editor (Robert Wise), and studio (RKO) with Citizen Kane, and it shows. Kane‘s richly stylized opening sequence makes Xanadu feel like a haunted house; similarly, the collision of Herrmann’s echoing score with Dieterle’s fantastic visions makes the devil’s presence surprisingly believable. But Huston’s cackling, maniacal performance sure doesn’t hurt.

Huston just steals the show with his unabashedly evil performance. (The same goes for Simon, to some extent.) During a frenzied dance, he fiddles wildly; when Ma Stone approaches during a conference with Jabez, he dashes off with bountiful energy. (Keep in mind that Huston was in his mid-fifties at the time.) He gnaws on carrots like a hellbound Bugs Bunny, and eagerly shares in some rum while debating with Daniel Webster. Huston’s Mr. Scratch isn’t grim or power-obsessed. Even when he loses the case, he doesn’t let it get him down. He heads out, steals Ma Stone’s pie, and turns his soul-searching gaze on the audience itself.

Mr. Scratch is the world’s most experienced salesman. He’s the kind of guy you could imagine selling your soul to; he makes being damned look like a damn good time. Even when Craig’s brooding and indecision get a little repetitive, when Arnold’s laid-back speechifying get a little too self-righteous, Huston is there to give the film momentum. If he got fed up and cartwheeled off-screen, it would hardly be surprising.

And now, as a final treat, here’s a none-too-subtle visual joke I noticed. Since this was 1941, they couldn’t show sexual intercourse onscreen. But through the magic of editing, they could imply so much more. In one scene, Jabez Stone embraces his wife…

Then we fade to black, and cut to:

Jabez “plowing the fields.” I think you can infer what that means. And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I make my exit.


Filed under Cinema