Whether you love or hate the series as a whole, it’s hard to deny that The Simpsons is at its best each year with the annual “Treehouse of Horror” episodes. Sure, series all over the TV map celebrate Halloween in one way or another, but no one has ever been truer to the season than Matt “Bat” Groening and the Simpsons clan have been for the past 25 years. This year’s episode looks to be a special treat, as the Simpsons are haunted by themselves, or at least by the Simpson family as they were originally designed for The Tracey Ullman Show, in a parody of 2001’s The Others, while another segment will spoof A Clockwork Orange.
Thus, we thought it would be a fun time to look back and celebrate some of the best movie parodies that The Simpsons has given us over the years with its “Treehouse of Horror” episodes. Maybe you guys got to relive them all during the epic FXX marathon, or maybe you haven’t seen them in years. In the end, the biggest question is, “Why don’t Kang and Kodos have their own anthology series yet?” Enjoy.
Like some future segments, “Bad Dream House” is basically just the Evergreen Terrace home becoming a central hub where the family are manipulated into doing terrible things to each other, though the house itself is the evil entity here. I like to think that the Simpson family members secretly entertain such violent muses on a day to day basis, but this is all due to the house being situated on an ancient Native American burial ground – one where Geronimo and Not So Crazy Horse are interred. The family spends a few minutes trying to murder each other while the house threatens them with swollen stomachs and writhing, boiling intestines. The Amityville Horror is also an inspiration behind this segment, with the bleeding walls and all, and other movies like Ghostbusters and The Exorcist get visual gags. This is the one that started it all, and it's still a classic nearly 24 years later.
What better classic movie monster is there for Homer Simpsons to “ape” than King Kong? From “Treehouse of Horror III,” the segment “King Homer” is about as solid a parody as The Simpsons has ever put out there, and it’s one of the more successful romance stories between Homer and Marge, albeit a heightened one. King Homer saves the “blue-haired woman” from being sacrificed by Mr. Burns and Smithers and attempts to keep her safe in a New York City that wants him dead. (Okay, so eating Shirley Temple probably wasn’t the best move.) The epic Empire State Building climax is excellently handled by having King Homer be too lazy and out of shape to climb it. It makes a fine double feature with the plus-sized episode “King-Size Homer.”
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
One of my favorite character bits in Simpsons history is Mr. Burns as Gary Oldman’s hideous titular vampire from Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as he is the absolute perfect bloodsucker to don the giant hairdo. Though Burns wouldn’t do much good as a swinging lothario. The segment “Bart Simpson’s Dracula” is almost entirely an ode to Coppola’s gorgeous film, with the family taking a trip to Burns’ giant Pennsylvania mansion. To be expected, no one but Lisa notices that spooky things are happening to Bart and others until it’s too late. (“Lisa, vampires are make-believe, just like elves, gremlins and Eskimos.”) Dracula isn’t the only undead being to get play here, as other fictional vampire tales also step out of the shadows, including The Lost Boys, Nosferatu and ’Salem’s Lot.
If you’re going to tell a scary story, you could do a lot worse than referencing one of the most finely crafted horror movies in history: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. For “The Shinning” – a spoof title that even Mad Magazine would groan at – the family moves into Mr. Burns’ mansion for the winter as caretakers. This is no vacation though, as Burns has taken away the home’s cable TV and beer, which leads Homer to turn into a Jack Torrance-ish maniac. (And he's no Jack Nicholson.) This is another segment with a subtext that is far truer than the Treehouse tag implies – Homer probably would turn into a murderer if he had to stay sober and TV-free. The Shining references are fast and free in this segment, and it leads to one of the darker finales in this series’ run, with the family watching TV outside as they freeze to death.
Beyond The Shining, “Treehouse of Horror V” also contained the gloriously dark “Nightmare Cafeteria,” a rip on Richard Fleischer’s 1973 sci-fi film Soylent Green. Faced with school lunch budget problems and an abundance of troubled students, Principal Skinner sees a way to kill two birds with one stone by literally killing the bad kids and serving them as food to the more well-behaved and unassuming survivors. Of course, not much thought is put into keeping it all a secret, as the foods are named after the kids that went into them (Sloppy Jimbos!), but Bart and Lisa’s knowledge of the situation doesn’t stop it from happening. In the end, just about everyone is dead, and though it’s only a nightmare (in an episode that already doesn’t tie into the show’s regular non-canon), it’s still a disturbing short at a point when this show was still mostly aimed towards children.
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Not even the revenge-seeking spirit of a burned-up child murderer is safe from being parodied by The Simpsons. Everyone’s favorite custodian Groundskeeper Willie gets to don a striped sweater and fedora for the “Treehouse of Horrors VI” segment “Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace.” Due to several lapses in responsibility and complete ignorance by all Springfield parents, Willie burns to death and comes back as a lawncare-heavy Freddy Krueger caricature to have revenge on the town’s children. Bart and Lisa battle Willie through Bart’s dreams, which gave us the superb visuals of Willie turning into a giant lawn mower, a giant bagpipe and a giant spider. Rarely is The Simpsons as fun as when things are happening inside characters’ subconscious minds. Willie unfortunately doesn’t call anyone a bitch before disemboweling them, but he does kill Martin, so all is well.
“Treehouse of Horror VIII” had an excellent zombie-filled parody of The Omega Man in it, but I admittedly get more dumb enjoyment out of watching a fly-headed Bart Simpson for the segment “Fly vs. Fly.” A parody of David Cronenberg’s The Fly with a pronounced lack of super-disgusting special effects and Jeff Goldblum's hair, this entry is about as basic as adaptations get. Homer buys a transporter from Professor Frink, and after a pretty amusing bathroom gag, Bart is inspired to use the machine on himself. Though he fantasizes about being a fly-themed superhero, his dreams are quickly dashed after a transporter trip puts his head on a tiny fly body, while his human body now features a giant fly head. I like the idea of the Simpsons, who rarely agree on anything, coming to grips with the fact that Bart is partly a fly and then accepting this new change. That’s as progressive as this family gets.
The Day of the Dolphin
I was 18 years old when “Treehouse of Horror XI” first aired, and I remember thinking “Night of the Dolphin,” while not overtly scary, featured one of the most unsettling bits The Simpsons had ever offered up. In it, Lisa unwittingly sets an apocalypse in motion by freeing into the wild a vengeful Marine World dolphin named Snorky. The super-smart dolphin rounds up the rest of his posse and attacks Springfield, leading to a town hall meeting where Snorky explains that dolphins used to be land animals before humans came around. The scene just after the meeting, in which the townsfolk walk through the many, many silent dolphin adversaries, is definitely the one that creeped me out, as well as the ominous “The End?” capper, spelled out by corpses floating in the sea. Go ahead and watch Blackfish after this for a nice palate cleanser and picture all of those dolphins with angry browbones.
The Island of Dr. Moreau
“Treehouse of Horror XIII” was another episode with double-up goodness, with “Send in the Clones” spoofing the Michael Keaton comedy Multiplicity. But there’s no denying the power of hilarity imbued in “The Island of Dr. Hibbert,” for which almost every recognizable Simpsons character is turned into a strange animal hybrid. The episode sticks to the basic plot of The Island of Dr. Moreau, as the Simpson family heads to Dr. Hibbert’s island resort, where the giggling physician has been turning everyone into oddball creatures. Marge is transformed into a sexed-up panther – rawr – while Bart gets a new spider look. Other stellar character twists are Disco Shrew, kangaroo Agnes Skinner with Seymour in her pouch, Snake as a skunk, and rhinoceros Kent Brockman. If this show ever actually did produce a spinoff, I’d be happy if this episode was the one that sparked it.
The rare instance where a spoof is arguably better than the source material, the From Hell parody “Four Beheadings and a Funeral” from “Treehouse of Horror XV” is a period piece investigation into the unsolved crimes of “The Muttonchop Murderer.” (More alliterative than Jack the Ripper, if anything.) Lisa and Bart are a detective duo trying to solve the mystery. Burns gets some good jokes here and Kang and Kodos make a memorable appearance in a badass steampunk spaceship, but the real winner of this tale is Ralph Wiggum. The entire episode turns out to be an opium dream for Ralph, who is given the drug by his own father earlier in the episode. One wonders if that behavior is limited to just this short. Selma’s murdered corpse is admittedly also another highlight. (This episode also contains pretty good parodies of The Dead Zone and Fantastic Voyage.)
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Neither heartwarming nor particularly scary (by Simpsons standards), the “Treehouse of Horror XVIII” segment “E.T., Go Home” is still great because it gives Kodos a story and makes him a main character for six minutes or so. Bart finds the alien in a shed and agrees to help gather the necessary materials for Kodos to contact his home planet. Of course, these things (such as secret locations of U.S. missile defense facilities) blatantly imply that Kodos is planning on destroying the planet, but Bart remains ignorant of this. Much (not) like in E.T., the American military shows up and destroys this amazing lineup of different aliens, including quite a few with hats.
Set between the goofy “Treehouse of Horror XXI” parodies of Jumanji and Twilight is the segment “Master and Cadaver,” a surprisingly dark and otherwise un-Simpsons-like parody of Philip Noyce’s 1989 thriller Dead Calm. Avoiding the use of jokes as a crutch, this segment takes Homer and Marge out of Springfield and puts them on a waterbound second honeymoon that’s interrupted by Roger, a castaway voiced by Hugh Laurie. He claims the passengers on the ship he was previously on were victims of a poisoning, which Homer and Marge almost immediately suspect Roger of committing. It’s a predictable tale of misdirection and twists – one that ends with a droog Maggie nod to A Clockwork Orange – but the segment also reminds us of what The Simpsons is capable of doing when it remembers how to be different. I like watching Homer and Marge work together to get things done, even if it’s kill an innocent man.
Everything in Guillermo del Toro’s Couch Gag
Over the years, The Simpsons has brought in different underground and mainstream directors to tackle their couch gags, but none have been as over-the-top and reference-filled as Guillermo del Toro’s opening sequence from “Treehouse of Horror XXIV” last year. Dozens of movies and TV shows are honored in different ways, including all of del Toro’s own films. This isn't a parody so much as a series of homages, but it’s probably the only time Phantom of the Paradise and The Devil’s Backbone will share the same screen space.
Will one of the entries in “Treehouse of Horror XXV” top anything I've listed here? Find out when The Simpsons airs tonight, October 19, on Fox.
Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.
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