The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T is one of those quintessential cult classics. It completely bombed when it was released, and was bashed by the critics of the day. However, it then found a strong and loyal cult following through word of mouth due to its surreal nature, the fact that Dr. Seuss wrote the script, the great songs, and the child protagonist’s anti-authoritarian nature.
Lead character Bart Collins is forced by his widowed mother to take piano lessons from the sadistic Dr. Terwilliker, who is slowly seducing his mother. One day Bart dozes off during his boring lessons and enters the surreal and terrifying dream world of the Terwilliker Institute. Terwilliker has imprisoned another 499 boys (the “5000 fingers” of the title) in his castle, which looks like a cross between the set of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and ‘50s kitsch at its finest. Bart enlists the plumber Zabladowski (whose real-life counterpart is the man Bart wishes his mother would fall in love with) to fight against the maniacal tyranny of Terwilliker.
Dr. T was completely butchered after a disastrous preview screening, where most of the film’s original songs were ripped from the negative. These are believed to be lost, and reshoots occurred. However, despite the fractured editing and clear evidence of studio tinkering, the film is a wonderful, dark kids’ fantasy that is almost pre-punk in its attitude to authority—no wonder it’s Jello Biafra from The Dead Kennedys’ favourite film.
It’s really amusing to find out that after the film debuted as an enormous flop, the studio tried to recoup its investment by passing it off as a beatnik film entitled Crazy Music, with the wonderful Beatsploitation tagline: “It’s the craziest, man!”
Dr Seuss never made another film after his perceived betrayal by the studio over The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T. Director Stanley Kramer—a very good director in his own right—would not speak about his bad experience on the project. I’m sure both would have been very pleased that their work eventually found an audience, however.
The disc includes a bunch of featurettes, a commentary, a Joe Dante commentary on the trailer, and a nice fat booklet of new and old writing on the film.