2/2/07

1003 Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders

(1996, Fantasy/Horror/Children, color)

Rock ‘n roll Martian!

Rating: ****

In a nutshell:

Merlin comes to modern times to inspire mankind with his magic, but gets distracted…

Summary:

Remember to believe in magic, or I'll kill you.We begin with a middle-aged medium in a turban, working her ouija board amid tchotchke-cluttered shelves, shrilling out into the candle-lit night as she seeks the guidance of her familiar spirit...Thomas Johnson. She shrills in vain, for Thomas Johnson is not there. In his place, a sinister poltergeist named Augusta Dow (I think) rocks the house and smothers the turbaned medium in a landslide of worthless kitsch. Overturned candles set the house ablaze while a toy monkey grins and claps his cymbals. Lightning strikes, the house explodes, the camera pulls back...

...and it’s just a bad movie on TV. [Insert ironic giggle here.] Lightning strikes nearby; the power flickers and goes out, provoking groans of disgust from the eight-year-old television viewer. Grandpa (a.k.a. Ernest Borgnine) says the toy monkey reminds him of a story he wrote for a television series about Merlin the Sorcerer, who came to modern times to use his magic to inspire the hopes and dreams of mankind...

...and Merlin appears in an unidentified urban mall. He conjures his Shop of Mystical Wonders into existence, complete with his very own dragon, troll, and zaftig wife Zurella. Next day, a random child wanders in and is treated to boring parlor tricks while his mom and her friend Madeline discuss Madeline’s infertility in graphic physiological detail. Madeline’s husband Jonathan arrives; he’s a high-rolling curio shop critic, and threatens to give Merlin’s little establishment a bad review if he doesn’t do something spectacular. (That’s the gist of it, anyway. In practice, he shouts things like, “I chew places like this up and spit them into the toilet!” while continuously insinuating that Merlin and Zurella have been smoking certain mind-altering substances.) Merlin accepts Jonathan’s taunts with equanimity, and finally gives the obnoxious reviewer a spellbook to inspect at his leisure. On their way out, Zurella gives Madeline a gift as well—a magic stone that will make her dearest wish come true.

That night, a tender stuffed kangaroo sequence implies that Madeline has wished upon her magic rock for a baby. Meanwhile, Jonathan retires to the basement to peruse his newly acquired spellbook. To his surprise, the spells actually work. He subsequently turns charcoal briquettes into diamonds, makes pitchforks fly across the room, roasts Miffy the Cat, and summons the devil. At this point, Grandpa Borgnine cuts in to explain that the wanton expenditure of magical energy has its side effects, in this case, premature aging. The newly gray and warty Jonathan searches the book for a spell to make him young again. The resulting potion requires blood, so he calls Madeline to provide it for him. He slurps the concoction down and turns into a baby. Madeline picks up the infant, overcome with joy. Not only has she gotten rid of her abusive husband, but she has the child she always wanted. The book magically returns to Merlin’s keeping, and everyone lives happily ever after...

...except for Borgnine’s grandson, who thought there was going to be a cymbal-playing monkey in this story. Grandpa Borgnine remembers the toy monkey was featured in a different episode of that television series he wrote...

...in which a scruffy-looking burglar breaks into Merlin’s Shop and makes off with one of the Mystical Wonders. Specifically, the cymbal-playing monkey with the toothy grin. Zurella scolds her husband mercilessly for losing it. Apparently, Merlin forgot to cast the “homing spell” on it, which is why the spellbook magically returned but the monkey didn’t. With no other recourse, Merlin hits the pavement with an artist’s rendering of the monkey toy, hoping to find it before it causes any damage.

The scruffy burglar sells the monkey toy to a curio shop, which, in turn, resells it to a nondescript woman named Susan. Susan takes it home as a birthday present for Michael, an eight-year-old who is either her son, her stepson, or her boyfriend’s son. Michael is delighted for some reason and proceeds to play with it while singing, “Rock ‘n roll Martian.”

But all is not well. Every time the monkey claps its cymbals on its own, something dies. It starts small, with houseplants, and works its way up to flies, goldfish, and Sparkle the family dog. Michael’s father David somehow figures this out and consults with an overwrought psychic on the subject. On her advice, he “accidentally” knocks the toy into the garbage while cleaning the house, and then pretends not to notice it’s still in there when he takes the trash to the curb. Michael is riding his Hot Wheels in the driveway and knocks over the can; he recovers the monkey toy and takes it back into the house. To show its gratitude, the monkey gets ready to clap its cymbals again, thus granting Michael a quick, station wagon-induced death.

David sees the monkey in the house and prevents it from killing his son. He ties its arms together and drives into the desert to bury it. In revenge, the monkey conjures an earthquake and a lightning storm, finally toppling a tree on its tormentor. David escapes with minor lesions and a strained elbow. A few days later, a friendly neighbor picks up David’s mother at the airport. She’s returning from vacation, and on her way back, she bought her grandson a belated birthday present…

Meanwhile, Merlin has been stopping random passers-by to show them his monkey drawing, and finally happens upon a friendly curio stand owner. Apparently, a bum found it buried in the desert. The junk retailer bought and subsequently resold it to David’s mother, who paid by check, so he has her address. Merlin is off in a flash, and interrupts the monkey’s horrible revenge on David and his family. He takes it back to his Shop, and nods to all the Mystical Wonders, satisfied that he has inspired the hopes and dreams of mankind...

...and Borgnine’s grandson has fallen asleep. [Insert second ironic giggle here.] Grandpa Borgnine leaves him sacked out on the couch and goes to bed.

Introduction:

Give me all your cookies, and I won't have you killed.In an effort to remain as trendy as possible, Mike and the ‘Bots engage in 1920s college pranks. Mike swallows goldfish, Servo stuffs dozens of himself into a phone booth, and Crow sits on top of a flagpole. “My face is stuffed into my own armpit,” Tom complains, and begs Mike for some deodorant. Crow falls off his flagpole; he screams endlessly without hitting the ground.

Host Segment One:

Mike has decided to switch from goldfish to large-mouth bass, but is distracted from swallowing when Crow finally hits the ground. Down in Castle Forrester, Pearl has received her first assigned experiment from the Institute of Mad Science. The hypothesis is that, given complete authority over others, anyone will become a maniacal despot. Tom bears this out by donning a military cap and delivering a self-aggrandizing speech. “In conclusion,” he says, “give me your cookies and I won’t have you killed.” Pearl takes her experiment one step further by placing fire ants into her test subject’s underwear. Tom immediately gives back all the cookies and abdicates in Mike’s favor. As the control group, Bobo isn’t supposed to have any fire ants in his underwear, but he just loves fire ants so much... He apologizes and excuses himself to change clothes.

Host Segment Two:

“Niche reviewing is the wave of the future,” says Crow, so he and Tom decide to review each other. Crow’s review of Tom starts with “his gay, even naughty bright red color,” moves on to, “loud and overpriced,” and ends by calling him “a chubby, pompous eunuch.” Tom’s review of Crow progresses similarly, moving from, “Insouciant, eclectic,” to “More garish than fun,” and concludes by calling him a “poorly conceived disaster.”

Host Segment Three:

Tom has acquired a spellbook, and uses it to cast an enchantment on Mike by the power of “Merlin and his holy demons.” Mike turns into a baby, albeit an adult baby who can clearly articulate his needs. Tom flees in terror when Mike requests changing. (Crow changes his diaper and turns him back into an adult during the subsequent film segment.)

Host Segment Four:

Mike has obtained a collection of Ernest Borgnine’s children’s books. These include: Santa’s Workshop of Shimmering Delights, in which an elf worker gets his hands scissored off in the metal-crimping machine; Slow Bear’s Woodland Picnic, in which Slow Bear bashes in Charlie Chipmunk’s head with a can of Pork & Beans; Fluffy Bunny’s New Blue Suit, in which someone eats someone else’s liver; and Dr. Blood’s Orgy of Gore, in which eight plump mice knit sweaters and live happily.

Host Segment Five:

Mike and the ‘Bots find a giant cursed monkey toy waiting for them when they return from the theater. He drops his cymbals the first time he tries to clap them, revealing himself as Bobo. Brain Guy brings him down to Castle Forrester, sets him on an end table, and vacuums. He nudges the table repeatedly, trying to knock Bobo into the garbage bag while Pearl babbles pseudo-scientific gibberish in the foreground. Brain Guy finally loses his temper and tells Bobo to just get in the bag. Bobo happily complies. He loves bags.

Stinger:

Rock ‘n roll Martian!

Thoughts:

This movie really hates curio shop critics.Imagine, if you will, two consecutive, mediocre episodes of Tales from the Crypt. Now replace the giggly zombie narrator and the over-the-top Danny Elfman score with an avuncular Ernest Borgnine and a soundtrack that ranges from tender to cartoonish. There’s a lot to be said here about the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of telling these horrific tales to eight-year-old kids in the middle of the night, but Mike and the ‘Bots cover this in host segment four, so I will forbear. There’s even more to be said about how Merlin came to the present day to inspire our hopes and dreams and then unleashed various ancient, murderous evils instead, but Mike and the ‘Bots cover this territory as well in the film segments. In short, this is a film that promises rainbows, flowers, and unicorns, but instead delivers demons, roasted house pets, and Faustian journalists.

Speaking of which, the Faustian journalist bothers me. Since when can a curio shop critic afford such a massive ego? I think you have to be fairly rich and/or influential to feed and clothe an attitude that allows you to scream, “I am the supreme being!” at people you don’t know. In real life, his editor would bust him back down to paperboy after the fifth or sixth call of complaint... Unless, of course, this movie is meant to take place in Los Angeles, where I understand this kind of behavior is accepted as normal.

Of note: Reviewer Jonathan’s unsubtle insinuations about Merlin’s altered consciousness do not seem entirely unfounded. Throughout the film, the eponymous sorcerer speaks in a yawning, overexpressive voice meant, I suppose, to convey his amiable mysticality. In reality, it sounds like he’s trying to perform children’s theater while stoned out of his gourd.

Also of note: Though references to King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone seem to indicate this version of Merlin is at least partially based on Arthurian Legend, Zurella’s presence is never explained. What, did Nimue change her name? Does the time-hopping Merlin have a different wife in each epoch?

Also, also of note: A significant portion of the footage in this film (i.e., most of the second act) was cannibalized from a 1984 film called The Devil’s Gift, in which a nondescript woman named Susan buys a cursed monkey toy and gradually succumbs to its evil influence. Having never seen that film in its entirety, I cannot relate what happens to her. She disappears partway through this cut of the film (Merlin doesn’t have time deal with nondescript possessed women, apparently), leaving us to assume that her ultimate fate must have been rather grisly.

My favorite host segment is the Ernest Borgnine series of children’s books, followed closely by the ‘Bots’ experiment in niche reviewing. In fact, we’re pretty much guaranteed a good time any time the ‘Bots wax eloquent. I liked Mike as a baby, and I liked Crow’s explanation of how he was able to take care of the problem. (He used to babysit his robot nephews.) Crow screaming for a long time before hitting the ground is funny, and Mike referring back to the first time they did that gag (in Episode 803) is a nice touch.

The film segments are excellent. This is definitely not a movie that delivers on its promises, and I’m happy with that. The glaring discrepancies between tone and content make excellent opportunities for mockery. After Borgnine introduces Merlin, the first person to appear on screen is the scruffy burglar, leading to Crow’s comment, “Merlin was a thieving crackhead who fenced VCRs to feed his habit.” When Madeline picks up her infant husband, Tom says, “Based on a story by Sigmund Freud.” When David consoles Michael over the death of his goldfish, Mike says, “If you hold the lid, we’ll bury her at sea.” Throughout, the Satellite crew role-plays the voices of grandson and Borgnine, discussing the horrific events in more childish terms, capped off with Mike proclaiming, “Even your tiny soul is doomed!” As Merlin looks over his collection of Mystical Wonders at the end, Crow sums up the movie by saying, “Remember to believe in magic, or I’ll kill you.” As a film, it’s probably rather inappropriate for small children, but as an episode, it’s one of the funniest they’ve done.