Horror films do bring us together. As an audience. The mutual jump. The beating of hearts together. The pumping of your adrenalin as one. It’s a terrible movie but one of the bonding moments I have with my Aunt Judy was seeing The Horror of Beach Party on Channel 50 out of Detroit one autumn afternoon in Michigan when I was like six. My parents had one of the first VCRs available, a massive, monstrous Sony; a gift directly from my uncle via Japan. The Jackson County library in 1982 had a collection of Universal Horror films that we borrowed over and over again – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man. I don’t remember ever being afraid of horror films. I remember them fondly, as a comforting friend almost.
When the Teen was young, she would watch whatever I would. She would prop up next to me and stare into the cold icy veins of whatever I put on. I never thought about age appropriate scares. Which led to a ban on the two of us watching Santo y Blue Demon films for several years (but that is a story for another occasion.) But then… there was The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. And we were in heaven. Scary movie heaven.
I confess, I never saw Dr. T until I was in my 20s. TNT used to promo their 100% Weird show with clips of poor Bart (Tommy Rettig) in his Happy Fingers beanie peeping out of the floor while his mom (Mary Healy) through a massive switch. Right out of college, I had to know was going one. And, at the old Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, much like William Holden taking that fateful turn, I found it on video tape for an ungodly sum at the time. And I watched it. And I watched it.
And I watched it.
And I made sure the Teen saw it. I think I made it all the way until she was three before I showed it to her. Amazing restraint on my part. Perhaps we don’t think of Dr. Seuss as being that frightening (grotesque visions of Jim Carrey and Michael Meyers notwithstanding), but given free form to write directly for film, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T blossoms quickly from innocuous 1953 piano lessons into a nightmarish world of Siamese twins connected by their beards, staircases to nowhere, taunting mocking signs designed for confusion, a Lock-Me-Tight, a piano built for 500 children, and yes, hapless Bart running helplessly through this landscape in his Happy Fingers beanie (think Jughead Jones, but with a rubber hand affixed atop) hoping to make sense of an utterly senseless world. And, it’s a musical, with songs dedicated to the joys of being victorious villains, the details of a long drop dungeon laid out as a trip through a department store, and most joyously, a frenetic ode to all the amazing, stupendous clothes that the villain will wear. “Dress me, dress me, dress me!,” indeed! The plot? Who cares about the plot? The plot is as meaningless as the music from, as Dr. Terwilliker puts is “scratchy violins, screechy piccolos, nauseating trumpets, et cetera, et cetera.” But briefly, Bart hates piano lessons and his piano teacher, he falls asleep and imagines a world where said music teacher (Hans Conried at the most demented of demented levels, in glorious color no less!) is taking over the world through his giant piano. And he has Bart’s mom totally flimflammed. Or as the good doctor himself puts it:
“I can tell you all about the rumors! I’m a villain! I’m a loathsome racketeer! This money you see before you? I’ve stolen it from the pocketbooks of unsuspecting mothers. Filthy, lying rumors! Why, this is a problem that every great man faces! The rumors of corruption that breeds in high places, rumors seeking to discredit my noble aims. And now these have crept into my own house, vilifying and besmirching my honesty, my fair name, my integrity!”
It is indeed a child’s nightmare gone big screen. Your father is dead. Your mother ignores you. No one believes the piano teacher is out to get you. The villains get all the good songs. The one guy you think you can trust is a shnook. The dungeon is filled with failed musicians. You can’t get any good pickle juice. Your hat no longer looks happy and gay. You’ve killed the Siamese twins for crying out loud! You have to sleep in the dungeon! They’ve taken away everything. All is lost! “Hooray for us!,” the villains gloat. “We are victorious!”
Or is it? Are they? Or is there an atomic answer to all these problems? One that will blow Bart back from dreamland to reality? Only in this delirious barren landscape, mimicking the minimalist drawings of Dr. Seuss’ books, would that work as well as it does.
The Teen and I quote this film back and forth to each other constantly, sing the songs, and wish we had beanies too.
So, stop sitting there with that null and void look on your face. Go out, put on your Happy Fingers beanie, and get running!
Joe Hilliard. Writer. Columnist. Luddite. Teller of Tales. His work can soon be seen in His work can be read in APB: Artists Against Police Brutality from Rosarium Press and The Legends of New Pulp Fiction from Airship 27. His current column Eat This Kitten can be found on the Asylum Ink website.