Animation Alley: Treehouse of Horror

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.

tohI-01“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.

tohI-02The 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.

tohI-03And we end with the house imploding in on itself, wishing to be destroyed rather than deal with the Simpsons. Bummer ending, but the animation is, as Bart succinctly puts it, “Bitchin’!”

tohI-04“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.

tohI-05During 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.

tohI-06David 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.

tohI-07Going 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.

tohI-08Homer 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.

tohI-09Finally, 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!

7 Responses to “Animation Alley: Treehouse of Horror”

  1. 5 October 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Guys, a slight mistake: “Bad Dream House,” by Rich Moore” with Kang and Kodos? Lol, that would have been an interesting episode.

  2. 5 October 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Nice writeup, I’m looking forward to the rest of them. Always enjoy watching the Halloween specials this time of year. One of my favorite Simpsons animation details comes in III, the classic ‘eye balls suddenly bulging out and back in’ http://lastowka.tumblr.com/day/2013/09/10

  3. 5 October 2013 at 2:06 pm

    I remember when I saw this one. I was in 7th grade. I found the last one very odd to the other ones but I liked the animation and music a lot. I haven’t seen it in years….almost decades! Gotta correct that ;)

    • 4 Stan
      5 October 2013 at 3:15 pm

      The final short made me cry for some reason, the first time I saw it. It was as if I wasn’t watching any halloween-y stuff at all, rather a theatrical piece of work instead. And yeah, I was about your age at the time.

      When I rewatched the Raven for the second time, in my 20ies, the bit I really, really liked was when Raven Bart’s chuckling head gets overlayered onto a regular Bart’s face saying “That wasn’t scary!”

  4. 5 Zartok-35
    5 October 2013 at 6:46 pm

    This was the first episode to feature animation by Paul Wee, who animates those shots of Homer yelling at the raven. Mike Anderson animated the knife scenes in ‘Bad dream house’, he drew the Simpsons with very fancy eyebrows. Jim Reardon was Assistant director on all 3 segments .

  5. 5 October 2013 at 8:04 pm

    “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.” So true! Not to mention as you did, the art direction.

    The Simpsons even in it’s heyday was pretty limited animation, just enough to demonstrate what’s happening in the scene effectively. The few times they went off model for something specific, in the Halloween specials or little moments like Homer handing in his test (http://deadhomersociety.com/2010/08/02/animation-showcase-homer-goes-to%C2%A0college/) it made for very memorable scenes.

    These days everything on the Zombie Simpsons looks like the Simpsons movie; super bright primary yellows, the blue to slightly lighter blue gradient in the skies, because flat blue skies are so 1991; only without the animation flourishes the movies budget allowed them.

    I’m sure everyone’s seen this comparison of Marge and Maggies scene in the original opening and the updated one: http://www.cartoonbrew.com/tv/the-stiffsons-30402.html
    Super stiff, pose to pose snapping animation, compared to fun bouncy cartoon movement that isn’t too over the top. Call me crazy but I’ve always thought that animated sitcoms use this obvious advantage of being animated to distinguish itself from live action sitcoms.

    The Simpsons pulled this off as well as anyone could. The Simpsons wasn’t a flat-out cartoon, like say Ren and Stimpy, but it also didn’t want to completely waste the inherent freedom of being animated. So they had small animation flourishes here and there to keep the show alive and just cartoony enough.

    Zombie Simpsons has been influenced for the worse by Family Guy who’s ultra limited animation makes you wonder if the show is being animated at all or if it’s simply a computer program connecting the same 5 poses every week.

    The Simpsons humor mostly came from it’s writing, story and character, rather than animation, which is fine for an animated-sitcom but now that the writing AND animation has gone to the dogs, what’s left to enjoy?

    Sorry for the mega-comment and sorry if it’s gratuitous length breaks any commenting guidelines but as an animator myself, the Zombie Simpsons animation really irritates me and leaves a sour taste in my eye.

  6. 7 FireFlower
    5 October 2013 at 9:43 pm

    I agree. The HD animation of the show is so boring and too perfect looking.

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