Born of quite possibly one of the most moronic cases of Executive Meddling ever, Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders (1996) started out as a horror anthology directed by Kenneth J. Berton. Unfortunately, the movie studios didn't want any more horror as family films were all the rage then. As a result, a flimsy Framing Device about a child and his deeply unhinged grandfather (a poorly veiled Author Avatar played by a remarkably paunchy Ernest Borgnine) who tells his grandson stories during a power cut was attached (the program the grandson was watching before the power went out reminded Grandpa Borgnine "of a story [he] once wrote for TV"), a scene involving a séance turned into the Show Within a Show Cold Open, and umm...not a lot else changed.
The first story is about an uptight critic with an infertile wife who won't shut up about it who tries to criticize Merlin (who has apparently downgraded from serving the great King Arthur to running a joke shop in a strip mall in a bland Northern Californian town) for not being magical. So, Merlin gives him a spell book, to teach him a lesson. Naturally, this goes badly, and the man summons a demon, sets fire to the cat, almost impales himself and almost crushes himself. In the end, while trying to make himself younger, he conveniently turns into a baby, and his wife (now his mother) enters into possibly the Squickiest relationship ever to appear in a "family" film.
Then, Merlin's beloved wind-up monkey (AKA "rock and roll Martian") gets stolen (this monkey was seen on TV earlier, and is what inspired Grandpa Borgnine to tell this story), eventually making its way into the hands of a cute family at least a dozen years in the past, and shot on completely different film stock to the rest of the movie (the whole sequence was cut down from the same director's first, and only other feature, The Devils Gift). Being a smart guy, Merlin of course came up with a "homing spell" that would return the demon-possessed, death-curse-causing toy monkey to his possession on command, and because he's a really smart guy he then promptly forgot to actually use the homing spell on the monkey before it was stolen.
Best known now as the last episode (though technically it was episode three of season ten) of Mystery Science Theater 3000 broadcast during the series original run (it didn't air until after the Grand Finale, Danger: Diabolik, due to rights issues).
This film provides examples of:
- Acting Unnatural: Dad's attempt to "accidentally" dump the Cymbal-Banging Monkey in the trash.
- Adaptation Induced Plothole: Many scenes from The Devil's Gift were omitted, mostly cutting down on the padding but removing context in a few instances:
- The character of Susan (whom most viewers assume from this version is the mother, but is in fact David's girlfriend) vanishes halfway through the second part of the film. This is because in The Devil's Gift, the monkey doll makes her try to kill Michael, then David comes home and sees this, then throws Susan out of the house, accidentally injuring her in the process. Apparently even this film had its limits.
- Similarly, The Devil's Gift has a scene where the monkey doll takes control of the shower in an attempt to kill David, which ends with David realizing the psychic was onto something regarding the amulet she gave him and he decides to wear it for the rest of the movie until he takes it off after surviving the falling tree. These scenes were all omitted, making David survive the falling tree come off as nonsensical. However, David is seen taking off the amulet after getting back home in the end, so it can probably still be inferred he put it on at *some* point.
- More regarding the time frame, but The Devil's Gift takes place over several days with an epilogue that presumably takes place much later since David's injuries have been patched up and the monkey toy must have been dug back up and brought somewhere for grandma to buy it from. However, Zurella tells Merlin to never return until he finds the monkey toy, meaning either the timespan of The Devil's Gift is *vastly* condensed in this version or there's a lot of Merlin's search we're not seeing.
- Adults Are Useless: David letting Michael ride his Big Wheel into the street, down a relatively steep driveway, with his car parked to where you can't see oncoming traffic, seems like an extremely dangerous idea even without a demonic killer toy around. All the more egregious as David looks out and sees this but only reacts in a panic when he sees the monkey back inside.
- Artifact of Death: The monkey with the cymbals.
- As You Know: The critic's wife/eventual mother is clearly incapable of going five minutes without mentioning her infertility.
- Babies Ever After: An odd variation. The wife of the first segment lives happily ever after with the baby she always wanted... which happens to be her age-regressed husband.Servo: Based on a story by Sigmund Freud.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Wanting to become young again might result in you becoming a baby.
- Big Damn Heroes: Merlin stopping the monkey at the very end of the second story.
- Big "NO!": David when he sees the monkey about to kill his son.
- Body Horror: Johnathan's Painful Transformation after taking the youth potion. What little of the actual change we see on camera involves a disturbing bulging effect under his skin. The Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew described it as "a mouse under my bald wig!"
- Breath Weapon: The spell to summon a spirit gives the user "dragon's breath" as a side effect.
- Canon Foreigner: Zurella. They could've at least named her Nimue or something...
- Cast from Lifespan: Mr. Cooper finds out the hard way that this is what happens when you cast spells willy nilly. Only a rejuvenation spell can make you young again. (Presumably Merlin and Zurella are immortal so they don't have this problem, even if they choose to look old for some reason. Either that, or Cooper screwed up the potion and they do it correctly.)
- The Cat Came Back: The Cymbal-Banging Monkey. Seriously, no matter what David does, that damn thing won't stay gone.
- Cats Are Mean: Yeah, but only if you cast spells on them without knowing what you're doing. Otherwise, they're quite pleasant.
- Character Shilling: All the characters in the Devil's Gift segment seem to think the Obviously Evil toy monkey is the most awesome thing ever. Even after it's been in the trash and/or buried in an earthquake.
- Cymbal-Banging Monkey: The villain of the second part of the film is one of these possessed by an evil spirit.
- Demonic Dummy: The monkey.
- Disproportionate Retribution:
- Jonathan threatens to write a bad review about Merlin's store. Merlin retaliates by giving Jonathan a book of real magic spells and telling him to try them out for himself—basically the magical equivalent of handing a child a loaded gun. It's no surprise that Cooper winds up screwing himself over with magic; he's lucky more people weren't hurt in the crossfire.
- You almost get the feeling (at least based on this cut) that the monkey tries to kill the kid because David tried to get rid of it by putting it in the trash. And this is after it has already killed two family pets. And the houseplants. And a fly.
- Framing Device: The grandfather telling his kid horrifying stories, thus showing the action of the film. Even sillier when you consider the long scenes of nothing happening in The Devil's Gift.
- Servo: Man, Borgnine's grandkid must be really bored right now.
Mike Nelson: (as Grandpa Borgnine telling the story) "...And then he puttered around the kitchen for a while, and got himself a cold drink."
- Good Hair, Evil Hair: Jonathan's Rapid Aging turns him into a stock Evil Sorcerer, complete with a long, wispy white Fu Manchu/Shang Tsung mustache.
- Hand Wave: On top of another Hand Wave. Ernest Borgnine tries to get around the fact that Merlin's book from the first story was still with the family at the end of the story by saying it had a "homing spell" that causes it to return to Merlin. When the monkey gets stolen in the second story, however, Merlin apparently can't just summon it back the same way because Zurella says he "forgot" to put the homing spell on it.
- Happily Ever After:
- The last scene was originally a Downer Ending, but was changed so Merlin saved the family. The film even added clumsy sounds of the family getting out of the house (offscreen, of course). The monkey shown in the Merlin footage is clearly not the same toy. Or the house. Or the lighting.
- In a twisted way, the first story ends on this note. Sure, it's creepy that she's raising her husband, but she finally has the baby she could never give birth to.
- Hope Spot: Despite the very forces of nature fighting him, David buries the monkey, and everyone's happy... but someone digs it up and sells it to his mother, who decides it would make a good present for her grandson. Well, time to die! Err..., barely escape with your lives, again, when Merlin saves you!.
- Jerkass: Newspaper critic and Asshole Victim Jonathan Cooper III in the first segment.
- Kids Shouldn't Watch Horror Films: The opening of the film, in which the horror movie the kid is watching (actually the full version of the film used for the second half) gets cut off by a lightning storm knocking out the power. Grandpa Borgnine remarks that he shouldn't be watching a scary movie anyway... ...before telling his grandson scary stories (one of which is based on said movie to boot!).
- Law of Inverse Fertility: Jonathan and his wife Madeline in the first segment are trying to have a baby, but "there's no hope at all", as she exposits to her friend in the parking lot.
- Leg Cling: Though why they thought Merlin's wife was a good choice for this...
- Lysistrata Gambit: Inverted in the oddest way imaginable: Merlin's wife actually appears to threaten to have sex with him! She probably intended to be threatening him with violence, but it's quite poorly written.Merlin: Don't I get a kiss?
Zurella: You'll get a lot more than that if you don't get out there and find that thing! Now, go!
- Mood Whiplash: Thanks again to that Executive Meddling: the creators' attempt to neuter the more steadily macabre second half was to add intentionally comical scenes of Merlin, in full regalia, wandering around town looking for a cymbal-banging monkey. The effect is something like randomly cutting together The Twilight Zone and Pee-wee's Playhouse.
- Mythology Gag: Some to The Devil's Gift:
- Billy at one point wonders if the toy monkey will end up killing Michael, likely a nod to how in the original The Devil's Gift film it did at the end.
- A scene from The Devil's Gift that did not make it to this cut had David visit the antique store and ask about the cymbal-banging monkey, with the clerk saying he thinks someone stole it. Not true in that version but very much the case here.
- Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: Grandpa Borgnine and, metafictionally, the executives. Seriously, who the HELL thinks Kill 'Em All horror is an appropriate genre for the bedtime stories of a seven year old!?
- No Accounting for Taste: One really wonders why the hell the critic's wife stuck with him so long, to the point of wanting to have his child.
- Obviously Evil: The movie wants you to think the little monkey looks like a charming children's toy. Just ignore those staring, dead glass eyes, and that rictus non-grin and focus on the Character Shilling.
- Offscreen Teleportation: The monkey falls into an earthquake fault. We're free, right? WRONG!
- Painful Transformation: Johnathan's transformation after taking the youth potion. There's a lot of screaming and most of it isn't even shown on screen, but what little we do see involves a pretty sickening effect accurately described by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew as looking like "a mouse under [Johnathan's] bald wig."
- Parenting the Husband: The end of the first story. Literally.Mike: Oh good. Now she has to raise her horrible husband.
Crow: That's what most wives think they do anyway.
- Posters Always Lie: The elderly Zurella is now portrayed as a sexy slim faerie. Along with that, there is no castle, the troll and dragon are only seen for a few seconds at the shop (we only see parts of the dragon) and Merlin never does magic nor does the movie take place in a dark fantasy setting. This poster was later used for some of the international DVD covers as well.
- The Public Domain Channel:
- "I'm the ol' PIN-CUSHION MAN! Terror of Balloony-land!" David's son watches the old Ub Iwerks cartoon Balloon Land in one scene.
- There's also the show the kid is watching near the beginning, which is less public domain and more footage from The Devil's Gift.
- Averted, the other cartoon shown is The Ultraman anime.
- Raise Him Right This Time: A somewhat disturbing example.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: After Johnathan has spent some time playing with Merlin's magic book, murders his cat, and destroys most of his basement in the process, he realizes that he's become old right before Satan appears in his mirror to mock him for it.Satan: What's the matter, Mr. Cooper? Did you think your newly discovered "power" came without a price? Hahahaha! Do you believe in magic now?!
- Science Is Bad: Well, Merlin thinks so.
- Show Within a Show: Borgnine and son are watching the seance scene of The Devil's Gift, which rather oddly was the film that much of the footage was taken from.
- Small Name, Big Ego: Has anyone ever taken a local store critic as seriously as Mr. Cooper seems to think they do?"My reviews have destroyed whole cities!"
- Soundtrack Dissonance: To a comical degree in the first segment. The score provides lighthearted, whimsical fantasy music even as Jonathan becomes ensnared in Merlin's book of spells and roasts his cat alive with his breath.
- Straw Critic: "I chew up places like this and spit them into the toilet!"
- The '80s: All the scenes from The Devil's Gift were filmed in this era, and the obvious early '80s feel jars with the Borgnine and Merlin bits, which were filmed much later in the mid '90s.
- Tome of Eldritch Lore: Merlin's book of spells, most of which summon Beelzebub and/or cause death in imaginative ways.Mike: (After Cooper has used the book to give himself "dragon's breath".) Clearly, Merlin has brought good into the world!
- Vertigo Effect: When David sees the monkey in his house one last time.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: The girlfriend of the family in the second half disappears about halfway through that story. That's because in The Devil's Gift, the monkey possessed her to make her try to drown the boy. She then broke her head on the front door after being stopped.