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By Merle Bertrand | September 16, 2002

What would “Fawlty Towers” be like if it wasn’t funny? Impossible as that is to imagine, “The Mesmerist” serves nicely as one possible example.
Old man Valdemar (Howard Hesseman) lies on the verge of death. Having received the news, his saucy but still virginal daughter Daisy (Jessica Capshaw) has returned home with her fiance Benjamin (Neil Patrick Harris). Together, they enter Daisy’s childhood home to find Mr. Valdemar attended to by the bumbling Dr. Hoffler (George Wyner), the sexy Sicilian housekeeper Consuela (Jo Champa), and, of course, the world renowned, legend in his own mind and obviously off his rocker mesmerist, Dr. Pretori (Jason Carter). Together, they keep a raucous vigil around Valdemar’s death bed, reluctantly agreeing to aid Dr. Pretori in his experiment; a mad scientist-like scheme to show us, through hypnosis, what lies on the other side of death.
With timing, subtlety, good writing and skillful direction, “The Mesmerist” could have been a truly hysterical and offbeat black comedy. Instead, it’s a horribly over-acted; tiresome sort of “Naked Gun” on crystal meth that is at first merely groan-inducing. Then the exhaustion and irritation set in.
It’s too bad, too, because the film’s campy art design perfectly captures the look and feel of a schlocky 1950s horror film. Wasted as well is a game performance by Harris of TV’s “Doogie Howser” fame, who’s fun to watch even when he knows he’s performing less than Academy Award winning material.
Based on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar,” director Gil Cates, Jr.’s film tries desperately to mix outrageous comedy and melodrama with horror and mystery. The resulting concoction is a cinematic elixir that disappoints, no matter how much hypnosis one is under.

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