Compare & Contrast: Treehouses of Horror Ending in “V”

Treehouse of Horror V11

“This sandwich tastes so young and impudent.  Seymour, what’s with the good grub?” – Mrs. Krabappel
“Well, perhaps I ought to let you folks in on a secret.  Do you remember me telling Jimbo Jones that I’d make something of him one day?” – Principal Skinner
“Are you saying you killed Jimbo, processed his carcass, and served him for lunch? . . . Ha!” – Mrs. Krabappel

This year’s Halloween special had three segments: one about a hellish version of Springfield Elementary, one about a Kubrick movie, and one about the Simpson family co-existing with different versions of itself.  Twenty years ago, the Halloween special also had three segments, one a Kubrick movie parody, one about Homer traveling between different versions of his family, and one about a hellish version of Springfield Elementary.  Except for the order, they match up perfectly.  Since The Simpsons always takes precedence over Zombie Simpsons, we’re going to follow the order from “Treehouse of Horror V”.

“The Shinning” vs. “A Clockwork Yellow”

Like most big name directors, Stanley Kubrick made some great movies and some crappy movies.  From a parody and satire point of view, however, what made his films great was the sheer number of iconic and memorable characters, images, and lines.  Whether it’s the Monolith, Jack Nicholson hacking his way through a door, or Malcolm McDowell and his gang strutting down the street in suspenders, bowler hats, and cod pieces, Kubrick movies are full of moments that stick in the audience’s mind, which makes them perfect for comedy.

The Simpsons exploited that all the time.  There’s Homer at the “Dawn of Man” in Lisa’s Pony; there’s Bart reaching for the cupcakes in “Duffless”, there’s Frink with the Strangelove glasses in “Homer Defined”.  “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming” not only features R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket, but even has a complete war room from Dr. Strangelove.  None of those defined an entire episode, they were just quick little things put in there for fans who cared to notice them.

“The Shinning”, the first segment from “Treehouse of Horror V”, was different in that it retold an entire movie.  All the major plot points and characters from the 144 minute film are condensed into just seven minutes of screentime.  All by itself that’s damned impressive, but what turns it into a Simpsons masterpiece is the way that each thing they reproduce is recognizable as the original yet still creative and funny in its own way.  The blood spilling out of the elevator isn’t a moment of gore soaked terror, it’s a ho-hum hotel regularity, no more interesting than fresh towels or the luggage carts in lobby.  It just usually gets off at the second floor.

The hedge maze, the ghostly bartender, Homer getting locked in the fridge, the typewriter being a window into madness, even Bart’s titular “shinning” and Willie’s failed rescue attempt, these are all recognizable to anyone who has seen the film and each is given its little twist.  But, and this is crucial, no one needs to have seen the movie to get any of them.  It helps, sure, but you don’t need it.  Homer declining his Nicholson destiny (“Can’t murder now, eating”) is funny all on its own.  The references to the film augment the story and the jokes, not the other way around.

The same cannot be said for “A Clockwork Yellow”, which reads like mismatched excerpts from a Kubrick film guide.  This is plenty apparent right at the beginning, where pretty much everything is a weird and senseless reenactment of A Clockwork Orange.  Moe has a gang just like Malcolm McDowell did.  But where McDowell’s gang turns on him for being a crappy leader; Moe’s gang turns on him just because that’s what’s supposed to happen.  Not only is it reductive rather than creative, but weak references are left to stand alone.


Remember this part of that one movie?  Yeah.  Cool.  Well, good talk.

Consider what is maybe the most famous scene from A Clockwork Orange: McDowell with his eyes propped open, forced to watch terrible things so that he won’t ever do them again.  In “A Clockwork Yellow”, Moe wears a similar contraption, but he’s doing it for no discernible reason:

Moe: These eye clamps are the only way I can tolerate today’s TV.
Announcer: Tonight on FOX!
Moe: Ahh, turn it off, I’ll be good.  I’ll be good!

If there is a joke in the final line (debatable), its premise is completely negated by the first.  If he’s wearing it voluntarily, it makes no sense for him to beg to have the TV turned off.  The sad reality is that he’s only wearing them because you can’t use A Clockwork Orange as your source material without someone getting their eyes propped open; setups, punchlines, and common sense be damned.

Dog of Death4

See, Zombie Simpsons?  It’s not hard to work this in and have it make sense.  It’s really not.

This complete dependency on making references is shaky enough early on, but the segment collapses completely at the end when the show just blows through references as fast as it can.  There’s the guy from Full Metal Jacket, there’s a thing that – again for no discernible reason – looks briefly like the Monolith, there’s some dudes dressed like they’re in Barry Lyndon, there’s a bunch of naked people like in Eyes Wide Shut.  And that’s it.  There’s no coherence, no jokes, no indication whatsoever that the writers have taken something, parodied it, and made it their own.  They’re just showing you stuff you’re supposed to recognize.  It’s less a television segment than it is a police lineup.

“Time and Punishment”  vs. “The Others”

Despite the fact that one of these is about time travel and the other is about ghosts, the basic concepts here are very similar.  In each case, we see different versions of the Simpson family.  Like the Kubrick mess, however, the transparent thinness of Zombie Simpsons is immediately apparent.

In “The Others”, the old ghost-Simpsons just stand around and don’t really do anything.  Ghost-Marge gets the hots for Homer, and they spend basically the entire segment stretching that piece of nothing far past its breaking point.  Ghost-Homer eventually gets around to killing regular Homer, but not until after he’s stood around and not done anything for a good long time.  Once Homer is dead, ghost-Homer goes back to not doing anything.

Their habit of having most of the family just sort of stand there (ghost-Lisa literally doesn’t get even a single line) carries all the way through to the end when, in a desperate bid for internet attention (and how sad is that?), they create more versions of the family to stand there.  For starters, this has nothing to do with the rest of the segment we just saw.  The house was haunted, so older versions of the family appeared.  Now a bunch of randoms show up because . . . well, just because, that’s why.  If this was funny or joke filled, that’d be one thing, but it’s just more unsupported references.


They can’t stand this any longer.  Somebody please pay attention to them!  

“Time and Punishment” takes the idea of multiple different versions of the Simpsons seriously.  We see them not only as rich and perfect (in a world Homer doesn’t know rains donuts), we see them as obedient to Flanders (the unquestioned lord and master of the world), we see them as giants and with lizard tongues.  Each incarnation is very brief (much shorter than the “The Others”), yet the whole family is given things to do, lines to say (even Maggie!), and we get a glimpse of each world Homer visits in just a few seconds.

There aren’t any orphaned references, either.  When the episode runs through all those versions of the Simpson home, including underwater, the Flintstone’s house, Sphinx-Bart, and a fairy tale inspired giant shoe, not only is it lightning fast, but it fits with what Homer’s doing.  Because the writers bothered to show us several fleshed out parallel worlds already, the quick references to others add to that instead of being something tacked on to fill screen time (like a bunch of other Simpson families standing on the lawn for no reason).

“Nightmare Cafeteria” vs. “School Is Hell”

The main axiom of Springfield Elementary on The Simpsons is that it’s a waste of time and nobody wants to be there.  The students don’t learn much (even the likes of Martin and Lisa learn and excel more out of the classroom than in) and the teachers don’t care, but everyone has to show up, so they do.  In its own way, it’s already a kind of hell, so making it somehow worse for Halloween takes some imagination.

“Nightmare Cafeteria” pulled it off by taking the grim realities of normal episode Springfield Elementary and taking them to insanely logical Halloween episode extremes.  It’s one of the only Treehouse of Horror segments that doesn’t involve anything supernatural and that’s part of what makes it so great.  The faculty crosses over from merely being apathetic and passively hostile towards the students into murderous cannibalism . . . but they do so because of budget cuts.  Authority figures devouring children because they couldn’t make decent sloppy joes any other way, it’s hard to think of a more Simpsons concept than that.

Treehouse of Horror V12

Sloppy Jimobs are pretty damned horrifying.

By contrast, Zombie Simpsons not only doesn’t do that, they actually make Springfield Elementary nicer and more pleasant than it normally is.  I’m going to repeat that because it is an unusually clear example of just how witless and unmoored this show is.  They made the school in Hell more fun and enjoyable than the one on Earth.

As with so many Zombie Simpson ideas, it could’ve actually been interesting if it wasn’t done in the shallowest imaginable way.  But they didn’t go for “Earth is Hell” style irony, or even a particularly inventive version of Hell.  They just recreated Springfield Elementary with funkier looking students and flames outside the windows.  Even the Skinner-Chalmers monster is less evil than the two of them usually are.  Can you imagine the real Chalmers saying this?:

Hell Chalmers: As educators, our job is to gently nurture your child’s passion.

It’s sincere, it’s genuine, and it means he actually cares about Bart!  It’s antithetical to everything Chalmers is and does.  Again, had they made that sort of the point (Hell Chalmers is a better educator than real Chalmers), it could’ve worked, but two layer thinking is way too deep for Zombie Simpsons.  Instead, we get a montage before Homer shows up to be tortured for some reason.  There are a couple of chuckles in there (Yankees class, for example), which makes it the strongest segment of an anemically weak episode, but even in Hell the bright and sunny attitude of Zombie Simpsons makes everything simple, shallow, and harmless.

Halloween will always be better served by the Skinner who condemns a kid to suffocation for a paper airplane (even before he starts eating them) than by one who wants Bart to achieve his full potential.  The same goes for Simpson family members who are twisted and weird rather than still and silent.  Ditto thoughtlessly repetitive Kubrick references vis-a-vis full blooded (and full bodied) satire.

Twenty years on, there are reasons “Treehouse of Horror V” often tops Halloween lists.  “Treehouse of Horror XXV” will be lucky to even be remembered.

26 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Treehouses of Horror Ending in “V””

  1. 1 Stan
    23 October 2014 at 3:25 pm

    The first segment (that you mention last) just plain doesn’t work. Bart and Lisa get transported into another dimension with no way of getting out, then we see Bart become best student in hell-class (in one single day?), then we see Homer and Marge in there too (how did they get in?!) and finally, Homer wants to be tortured. And most of all, they had a perfect opportunity right there to end that fuck-of-a-segment with Bart taking out two huge hands and strangling Homer into oblivion. Instead, it just ends there.

    The Kubrick segment is one of those classic ZS (sorry for the irony) bits when they throw in a movie we all know and have fun at replacing everything with their characters. Obviously, seeing Kubrick himself at the end being hit by an orbital marker pen is supposed to be funny because of the 3 second rule his face is on, but I swear, I tried real hard, and I couldn’t. My soul must’ve left me during the first segment.

    As for The Others parody, the only thing you mention that ticks me is that both segments don’t really compare (or intend to) the way you did it. The Others in my opinion was a lazy FG going back to Pilot ripoff that was on someone’s mind for too long because they finally decided to let it aloof. I agree though, that the final sequence was generically misplaced (and that is a poor choice of words because you can’t misplace things that don’t hold together to start with), but what’s with the house being haunted? Where’s the morale? The culmination? The fuck were those ghosts visiting their latter selves for in first place (or did I miss something?)???

    20 or so years ago they ended one of their THoHs with a killer fog turning the characters inside out. Cheesy song, silly dance, Bart gets eaten by a dog, etc. etc. THAT was funny. The anime Simpsons knocking on the door of a house now filled with ghosts – not so much.

    • 2 Joe H
      23 October 2014 at 4:12 pm

      The Others segment really makes no sense. Does this mean the Ullman/Season 1 Simpsons are a completely different family that died in the house? Why did they decide to haunt now after all these years? Did they come from alternate realities like the other families in the ending?

      Both “Time and Punishment” and even FG’s “Back to the Pilot” established its own logic and rules to make each episode and the inter-crossover elements work. Same thing with Homer3–they bothered to explain what was going on and even add a bit suspense in it as a result. They didn’t just say “Homer is 3-D now, let the wacky shenanigans commence!”.

      • 3 Angelm Young
        25 October 2014 at 6:27 pm

        True, but that end with Homer in the real world and going into the erotic cakes shop feels like the kind of non-ending that Zombie Simpsons would eat up…and that was a classic episode.

    • 23 October 2014 at 8:26 pm

      Well said Stan and on a side note I have a Russian neighbor from the Soviet Union that is building a time machine.

      If it works I will travel back in time and warn everyone of ZS and how horrible episodes they have.

      • 5 Stan
        24 October 2014 at 12:06 am

        Thanks, but what would that accomplish? You’ll just come back into a time where King of the Hill will run past Season 20…
        But all that wit and still no Nobel? Я разочаровался в вас, Перельман.

        • 24 October 2014 at 8:32 am


          My other Russian friend on facebook, Sam T. wished me luck but anyway you are right I do suspect KOTH would be about season 25+ right now if I dis that but at least it would scare people into putting the Simpsons I to retirement.

          • 7 Frank
            24 October 2014 at 3:53 pm

            Dear Friends, I am actually from the year 3014 and the Simpsons is still playing!

            No we don’t have flying cars yet, and cell phones have become so big, we thought of an ingenious idea: build numerous “booths” in which a telephone could be found. We charge people only 25 cents to make a call.

  2. 9 FireFlower
    23 October 2014 at 4:59 pm

    That Clockwork Yellow segement was awful. It is a total waste to someone like me who has never seen a Kubrick movie. A good parody-like The Shining- makes sense even if you are not familiar with the source material.

    • 10 Stan
      23 October 2014 at 7:23 pm

      They’re not exactly two similar movies either (genre-wise). Orange is a cult film very reminiscent of later sci-fi works like Bladerunner (which, of course, has nothing to do with Kubrick, but I bring it up simply for the sake of it), while the Shining is something your regular Stephen King would write.
      The Simpsons didn’t make the mistake of parodying A Clockwork Orange because of its very restricted audience and generally bizarre/violently unnecessary themes (but Bart dressing up as Alex and acting like him for one and a half second was a sufficient nod to the movie). ZS, on the other hand, would “process” anything they get their hands on, lest god forbid, just to give themselves another pat on the shoulder.

  3. 11 Sarah J
    23 October 2014 at 5:56 pm

    I rather like the idea of different versions of the Simpson family coming together, but of course Zombie Simpsons screws it up. For one, the art styles are inconsistent. Some go all the way, but others only go part of the way. South Park style would’ve been better if it actually looked like construction paper cutouts rather than weird drawings, Adventure Time style doesn’t have the trademark dot eyes, and so on. Second, a lot of them are just the Simpsons family doing cosplay rather than actually having them as the style. The whole “alternate versions of characters” thing works best when you’re playing with general concepts rather than just dressing them up as established characters in a pathetic attempt to get some geek cred. Family Guy did it better.

    • 12 Joe H
      23 October 2014 at 6:34 pm

      As far as “alternate versions of the characters”, that aspect was also done better by Family Guy in “Road to the Multiverse” where there was a lot of attention to detail paid to the different versions of the Griffins, some of them based on existing franchises.

      Also, back to the point of returning to the original pilot, it’s hardly a new idea–in addition to Family Guy, South Park and Futurama have returned to the pilot. Needless to say that all 3 were much better than this episode segment.

      Once again, this was a criminally wasted opportunity. It’s pretty clear there was no creative input beyond the initial idea and the Ullman Simpsons designs, certainly not in terms of making the story interesting or making it naturally funny. Shockingly lazy even by ZS standards.

      • 13 Sarah J
        23 October 2014 at 8:43 pm

        Yeah, it’s what I was referring to. In the Family Guy episode, universes with alternate art styles went all the way.

        • 14 Angelm Young
          25 October 2014 at 6:36 pm

          Was that the Road to the Multiverse episode? I loved that one, but what was the Futurama episode that went back to the first episode, because there were at least three: one was an Anthology of Interest story, and the other two…I forget. I think one of them could have been one of the movies.

    • 16 Cal
      24 October 2014 at 6:04 pm

      Also, calling the segment “The Others” is very lazy since the title of the movie being parodied was “The Others.” At least “The Shinning” was explained: “Do ya want to get sued?”

  4. 17 Stan
    23 October 2014 at 7:25 pm

    Ok, yeah, sure, it was a tribute to Stanley Kubrick. Except that you ruined the whole party by just bringing in the cake.

  5. 23 October 2014 at 8:05 pm

    “If I puked in a fountain pen and mailed it to the monkey house, I’d get better scripts!” -Roger Meyers Jr. In “The Front” episode 9F16, from 1993.

    Just got this from The Simpsons A Complete Guide To Our Favorite Family (1996) page 112.

  6. 19 ecco6t9
    24 October 2014 at 1:39 am

    Seriously, I forgot it was a Halloween episode, and wasn’t surprised when I remembered,

  7. 20 Cal
    24 October 2014 at 6:02 pm

    It’s worth noting that the Treehouse of Horror episodes have been written by a single writer for the last 10 years, while segments in the classic years were divided up and written by different writers, probably enabling them to come up with more creative jokes and parodies. Not that it would make much of a difference for Zombie Simpsons writers.

    • 21 Charlie Sweatpants
      24 October 2014 at 7:57 pm

      That’s a very good point. These used to be the kind of episodes they put extra effort into, now it’s just part of a very broken production line.

    • 22 Sarah J
      24 October 2014 at 9:39 pm

      … Wow, seriously? I always figured that ToH episodes warranted different writers the most. A single writer really explains why the past several ToH episodes have lacked variety. All lame pop culture “parodies” that usually just involve placing Simpson characters in the roles and having few jokes.

    • 23 Angelm Young
      25 October 2014 at 6:43 pm

      That’s right. Ever since season 15, the THoH episodes have had one writer instead of three.

  8. 25 October 2014 at 11:06 am

    “The Others” segment wins the prize for wasted potential. It was a fun idea, and they’d done a good job of mimicking the animation and the voices – enough to make it work, anyway. It even started off well – Ullman!Marge was attracted to Jerkass Homer due to his more layabout approach to life, so unlike the early Homer. That’s actually quite an amusing idea, and it works because Ullman!Marge wasn’t particularly fleshed out, so they could’ve done pretty much anything with her.

    But… aside from Lisa’s comment about Ullman!Bart belching (which did bring a smirk to my face), that was pretty much all they did. The focus immediately switched onto the regular characters and a done-to-death plot (I liked Charlie’s comment in the BUF – “And now Marge killed herself. Uh, okay” – which summed up my reaction entirely). Heck, if they felt the Ullman shorts weren’t well-remembered or didn’t offer enough material, they could’ve pinched some season one characterisation easily and gotten away with it.

    Great C&C overall – using TOHV was perfect and well-observed!

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