The Mystery of Who Created "Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders"

Recently I had a few re-watches of “Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders” thanks to the June edition of the Gizmoplex Vault Picks (thanks, Synthia!). Alongside “Pod People” and “Manos,” it’s one of my absolute favorite episodes. The riffing is just top notch and still has me laughing every time I hear it, even twenty years since I first saw the episode. But part of the “magic” (see what I did there?) in a great MST3K episode is a fusion of superb riffing and a movie that strikes that wonderful balance of awkward, bad, still watchable, and really weird. “Merlin” certainly fits the bill for me.

Part of the weirdness of the film, of course, is that it’s a strange attempt by the director/writer to re-edit a then-twelve-year-old horror film alongside new footage to make something that vaguely appears to be (and is marketed as) a children’s movie but is still basically horror.

Both the older source film, 1984’s “The Devil’s Gift,” and 1996’s “Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders,” were written and directed by one Kenneth J. Burton. According to IMDB and every other similar site I’ve found, these are the only two films (well, one and a half films, I guess) Mr. Burton ever created. Every so often, whenever I revisit the movie, and being a big movie trivia buff, I always get curious and try to learn more about his career. It just seems uniquely odd that a guy would make only two (well, again, one and a half) movies, twelve years apart, and have no other film credits whatsoever. He had enough money and/or pull to get Borgnine, and I mean…that’s something. I always figured “Kenneth J. Burton” was a pseudonym. But who knows?

Do you? Is there a treasure trove out there of this person’s other strange cinematic work, made under another nom-de-plume? Or is this really all he ever created? Might there be further riff fodder for future MST3K episodes? If anybody has ever heard any “making of” stories about “Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders” (or at least “The Devil’s Gift”) I’d love to hear them!

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This brings up some interesting questions for me. If I understand you correctly, Merlin is basically a retelling of an older horror movie, this time for kids? What gets me is I don’t think the director even came close to making a kid’s movie, despite his best (worst?) efforts; I don’t even like to watch that episode because it creeps me out so much, and I’d never show it to a kid :sweat_smile:

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Unsure how many kids would find a good night’s sleep after witnessing a cat and a dog getting roasted.

But Kenneth Burton was trying to do… something… on a family friendly scale with Merlin’s Shop. His original ending for The Devil’s Gift went dark, with the monkey smashing its cymbals one last time to blow up the Andrews’ house from the inside, killing everyone in it. Merlin saves the day in the new cut but also commits a misdemeanor in doing so.

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I think someone must have told him that the re-cut would capitalize on the popularity of horror anthologies. But I don’t even know if those were in style when Merlin appeared.

If that was the goal, he missed by a country mile.

Honestly, the most jarring thing about it is that there’s not even a hand-wave to tell us that the Killer Monkey segment is meant to be “long ago.” By 1996, it already looked incredibly dated. Completely out of sync with the style and tone of everything around it.

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The guy made a horror movie about a cursed monkey toy.

Then he got a chance to do a family-friendly TV movie. So he got Borgnine to do a framing device and shot a new story about Merlin and the jerk from the local paper, and added the footage from years before as the second half of the new movie.

In the original story, the monkey killed everyone. Which would not work for the new family-friendly movie. So he shot new scenes of Merlin trying to track down the monkey, stepping in to stop the last cymbal crash just at the last second (you’ll note that none of the family members in that movie appear after the last cymbal crash is about to happen), and talking to his wife about how it worked out in the end and he’d have to find a better solution to keep the monkey from escaping again.

As with the movie we know as Pod People, it’s trying to be both a family movie and a horror movie at the same time, and it fails to be either. (In the case of Pod People, they were setting out to shoot a stock horror movie when E.T. came out, so the producers insisted they shoehorn in a story about a cute kid and a baby alien, and they had to rework everything with less gore and rewrite the plot - such as it was - on the fly.)

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Pretty sure there were a few Horror Anthologies running from the late 80s to the late 90s. Tales from the Crypt and Friday the 13th the series spring to mind.

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Wow I just….wow. Guess he couldn’t come up with a new original story for his second movie? And/or didn’t have the budget? Huh :sweat_smile:

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Maybe it really was Ernest Bornine telling stories to his grandson. Or maybe Ernest Bornine was Merlin all along! :astonished:

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According to someone on IMDB, The Devil’s Gift was originally a student film. (Also, Wikipedia has a plot summary if you’re interested. Some parts of the original were cut from the Merlin’s Shop version.) Both pages note the plot is very similar to a Stephen King story, leading to suspicion of plagiarism.

The best case scenario is that he liked the original movie, but, as a student film, it didn’t get much of an audience. So he took the opportunity to repackage it for wider release.

But it’s also possible that it was done for budgetary reasons, as you say. If half your movie is already made, you can save what money you do have to work on the other half. Or splurge and hire Ernest Borgnine, I guess.

I do wonder if this was intended to be a backdoor pilot. If the movie got good ratings and reviews, it could have been picked up as an anthology TV show in which various people would take home some artefact or another from Merlin’s shop. (Borgnine specifically tells the grandson that the monkey story was one he’d written as a pitch for a TV show.)

I never did figure out, though, why we needed Borgnine at all. Merlin’s shop already serves as a framing device. Why do we need another framing device around that? What purpose does Borgnine serve?

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I have a theory.

  1. The Devil’s Gift is produced.

  2. A pilot for a horror anthology centering Merlin is created.

  3. The pilot fails, so the idea is to rework it as a feature-length TV movie.

  4. There isn’t enough footage for feature length, so footage from The Devil’s Gift is repurposed to save budget.

  5. A decision is made that a film featuring Merlin should be aimed toward families, so an additional framing device – a grandfather telling a story to his grandson – is added.

… Profit?

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