It’s that Treehouse Of Horror time of year again, but The Simpsons’ Cape Feare remains a standout scary-movie spoof.
This article contains spoilers for 1991’s Cape Fear, as well as the Simpsons episode that has roughly the same name.
2020 marked the first time there was a Treehouse Of Horror episode of The Simpsons for every day of October. And around Halloween, there are always plenty of retrospective features looking at some of the off-canon anthology episodes’ various horror movie spoofs and Twilight Zone riffs, (usually those from the earlier seasons) which introduced a lot of younger viewers to scary stuff and references they’d properly understand later on.
With three scary stories per episode, you can go into flights of fancy like King Homer, The Shinning, or A Nightmare On Evergreen Terrace in 10-minute bursts. But for our money, Season 5’s Cape Feare is the peak of the series’ achievement in spoofing scary movies. Unlike those shorter Treehouse segments, it’s a full-length episode with Martin Scorsese’s hit 1991 remake of Cape Fear in its comic crosshairs.
Updating the 1962 thriller with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, Scorsese’s film stars Robert DeNiro as psychopathic parolee Max Cady and Nick Nolte as Sam Bowden, the public defender who Cady blames for his conviction. We’ve covered the remake and the story of how it got made in a previous episode of the Film Stories podcast, which you can hear below:
While the Cape Fear remake was a huge critical and commercial success upon its release in November 1991, Simpsons writer Wallace Wolodarsky observed that its Hitchcockian homages and iconic melodramatic touches were ripe for parody and pitched a Sideshow Bob episode that parodied the film.
In Cape Feare, Bob (once again voiced by Kelsey Grammer) dispenses with the plotting that Bart has twice foiled and starts sending him anonymous death threats written in blood instead. When he’s granted early parole from Springfield State Prison, the Simpsons join the Witness Protection Program and relocate to Terror Lake, with Bob in hot pursuit.
Arriving on TV screens within two years of Scorsese’s film hitting cinemas, the episode landed during something of a behind-the-scenes transition, with many of the show’s original writing team departing the show.
Written by Jon Vitti, Cape Feare was developed for Season 4 under outgoing writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss, but ultimately broadcast as the second episode of Season 5, which has a new showrunner in the shape of David Mirkin. It’s also the last Simpsons episode directed by Rich Moore, latterly known for Disney’s animated comedies Wreck-It Ralph and Zootropolis.
In the end, Cape Feare was held over because it was running short. Indeed, it was going to fall short of the contractual minimum length for a completed Simpsons episode before more bits were added in post-production. Unlike most other episodes of The Simpsons up to this point, there was no B-plot to this story and the entire runtime was dedicated to the Cape Fear spoof.
That means it’s a quite faithful parody, lampooning many iconic scenes from Scorsese’s film shot-for-shot with the jokes layered over them, like Homer outdoing Bob for obnoxious smoking and laughing at the cinema, Chief Wiggum doing the Joe Don Baker routine, and even a version of Bernard Hermann’s theme, which became the Sideshow Bob motif in later returns too.
Combined with the under-run, the “last day of work” energy for the outgoing writing staff meant that they went further than they usually would with surreal and cartoonish gags, still taking their lead from bits of the source material. For instance, a scene where Bowden sees Cady watching him at a parade is reimagined as Bob presumptuously telling Bart that there’s nothing wrong with lying down in the middle of a public street, only for him to be trampled by a full marching band and several elephants. When you know the episode under-ran, you can see the padding, but it’s all really funny padding.
Of course, the cheekiest bonus of padding the episode for time is also one of the show’s definitive sight gags. When Bob arrives in Terror Lake, he was originally supposed to step on a rake and move on. The extended version in the final cut takes a simple gag to absurd heights – he steps on nine rakes in a row, interspersed with that unforgettable Grammer “groannn” (you can just hear it, can’t you?) each time.
We mention all of this because despite the under-run, there was one scene that was cut from the episode for being a bit over-the-top. As seen in its incomplete form on The Complete Fifth Season’s DVD extras, the sequence has a sleepy Homer going down to the kitchen to find Wiggum eating a Sloppy Joe made by “Consuela”, actually Bob disguised as a maid. Homer gets all the way back to bed before noticing anything strange (“We don’t have a maid!”)
This was apparently too silly to make the cut in an episode that spoofs so many aspects of Cape Fear. Wasn’t too silly for Scorsese though, who gets a big jump scare out of De Niro dragging up and attacking Joe Don Baker’s P.I. while he’s on night watch.
In the end, Cape Feare premiered in October 1993, a couple of weeks before the annual Treehouse Of Horror special, (the one where Ned Flanders is secretly the Devil, Bart sees a gremlin on the side of the bus, and Mr Burns plays Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and received rave reviews.
To this day, it’s frequently counted among the series’ very best episodes in critic and fan lists. It also features prominently in Anne Washburn’s play Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play, which premiered in May 2012 and sees survivors of an apocalyptic event forming a theatrical troupe and retelling Simpsons episodes, including Cape Feare, after the destruction of civilisation.
Especially in the Treehouse Of Horror episodes, The Simpsons is suffused with references to films that the show’s younger viewers will only fully appreciate when they get older. Beyond its extensive lampooning of Cape Fear, the episode also squeezes in nods to other horrors and thrillers, including Psycho, The Night Of The Hunter, and Friday The 13th. Heck, even the Itchy & Scratchy short (another sequence added for time) manages pack in some movie references, nodding to both Say Anything… and Goldfinger in quick succession.
In its more cartoonish moments, it earns the right to bend the rules of The Simpsons as they existed at that point with its precise parody of a similarly over-the-top box-office hit. Watched side-by side with Scorsese’s movie, it’s even funnier, but even if you never get around to watching Cape Fear, that rake bit will never, ever stop being hilarious.
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