WASHINGTOON, Oct. 25, 2015 – Hold on to your Halloween masks, Simpsons fans! It’s time once again for the latest edition of “The Simpsons’” annual Halloween cartoon Spooktacular, “Treehouse of Horrors XXVI.” Tune in to this half-hour fright-fest at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.
Each annual Simpsons animated ghoul-fest is a golden opportunity for Simpsons writers, editors, cartoonists and producers to go wild with often insane parodies of vintage horror films from Grades A to Z. That makes these episodes a big favorite for classic horror film aficionados, who love looking for the characters, parodies and jokes.
Better yet, it’s a tradition for various TV and film stars to drop in and add their voiceovers to the cartoon body-count mayhem. Even better: guest cartoonists and animators often lend a hand to the festivities, and in the process, many B and C horror flicks are administered their last rites with a madcap flourish.
Some “Treehouse of Horror” specials are terrific, some are only so-so. This year, alas, is one of those so-so shows, a grab back of movie spoofs with pacing so frantic that you miss most of the film references and gags aside from the main ones.
Even more problematic, when taken together, the three primary story lines of this year’s “Treehouse” installment seem to lack both clear themes and coherence of better episodes, although enough laughs remain to make this show watchable if not mildly amusing.
Much of the real fun actually occurs during the show’s opening and closing segments. That’s particularly true during the opening overture and credits, where the writers poke fun at the names of guests and staffers—although you have to look really fast to catch all the punderful nonsense as it rushes by.
Even more fun are some of the bizarre yet weirdly familiar grotesques that show up in this sequence. If they look to you suspiciously like creations emanating from the disturbed mind of “Rin and Stimpy’s” John Kricfalusi, you win the jackpot!
However, this show’s main three segments don’t quite measure up to that madcap opener. Of the three segments, it’s probably the first one that will attract the most attention, having apparently attracted the most writerly details.
In what’s clearly a spoof of Stuart Gordon’s original “Re-Animator” (1985), we’re immersed without warning into a nightmare scenario in which Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer) takes advantage of his golden opportunity to gain his ultimate revenge on Bart Simpson by summarily slaughtering America’s favorite obnoxious and politically incorrect brat. Kowabunga!
Unfortunately, Bob discovers there’s a downside to offing Bart: without his primarily antagonist in life, Bob’s life now lacks a defining purpose, which is gets us to the “Re-Animator” thing. To renew and feed his undying hatred, Bob needs to re-animate Bart again and again so he can continue to kill the kid in new and highly original ways.
It’s all quite ghoulishly hilarious, particularly if you’re a fan of that bizarre original horror flick/bloodbath, which itself actually contained a great deal of wry humor. The parody is made even better during the intervening scenes (sans Bart) as Bob jousts with his obnoxious and pretentious students, most of whom are lost in the academic media-theory funhouse.
The second “Treehouse” episode, a parody (at last) of the avalanche of “Godzilla” films we’ve all loved and/or endured for some 60 years, finds a gaggle of Japan-ified Simpsons characters confronting a huge and ghastly monster they dub “Homerzilla,” because, well, that’s exactly who he looks like.
Grandpa Simpson takes a rare lead role in this one, which includes some grainy-looking black and white sequences resembling the early Japanese originals. Here, Grandpa’s a wise, all-knowing monster guru, although his skill set doesn’t really help him in the end.
Sound promising, right? Yet somehow, what should have been a gangbusters-funny segment never quite gets ‘em rolling in the aisle. The opportunity to have even more slapstick fun with the ridiculous image of a Homer-faced Godzilla is hopelessly squandered and rarely rises above the ordinary aside from the initial sight gag. The whole thing turns out to be more quietly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny.
Likewise, the last episode in this triptych, a general spoof on “Chronicle” – the 2012 film in which three teens discover they have superpowers but slip-slide toward the “dark side” – falls short of what it could have been. In this one, Lisa, Milhouse and Bart (who’s back from the dead and apparently none the worse for wear) are the kids who get—and begin to abuse—their superpowers.
Soon, this juvenile one-upsmanship degenerates into a “can you top this” grab bag of pranking, proving if nothing else that even superpowered kids, or superpowered scriptwriters and animators for that matter, can play stupid people tricks on their friends and neighbors while imagining that they’re funny enough for prime time. Or more accomplished than the Kardashians.
Oh, well. After all their many, many years on the tube — er, flatscreen — it’s not surprising that “The Simpsons” may be getting a little long of tooth, perhaps similar to the even more aged and decrepit “Saturday Night Live,” whose humor and originality has been down so long it looks like up to me.
In 2015, it’s those edgy, snarky writer-animator goofballs standing behind “South Park,” today’s best satirical TV series, who get the brass ring for comedic brass cojones. Their material has remained far funnier, far more topical and far more savagely original than either “The Simpsons” or SNL for that matter.
But there’s little likelihood that “South Park” will ever be ready for prime time family time TV. Which likely means that we’ll always have the Simpsons.
Even if Bart is dead.