Baffled! (1972)

It’s unlikely, when compiling a list of stars from British horror films, that you’d think to include Star Trek’s Mister Spock, Leonard Nimoy. In fact, you’d probably think it highly illogical (captain). But star in a Brit horror he did, although Baffled!, said film, is right on the fringes of what could be called British. Or horror at all, for that matter.

Baffled! is the title of a extremely baffling little TV show pilot which somehow got a cinema release in the UK. Despite its obvious US telemovie roots, Baffled! was filmed at Pinewood and stars a veritable cornucopia of Brit horror talent - Susan “Night Must Fall, and, erm, Monarch Of The Glen” Hampshire, Ray “House Of Whipcord, Flesh And Blood Show, and, erm, Mr Benn” Brooks, Angharad “Hands Of The Ripper” Rees… the list goes on, until it stops there.

The whole ridiculous thing is also marvellously entertaining, although 99 per cent of that entertainment is created unwittingly by Leonard “desperate not to be typecast but failing miserably” Spock… sorry, Nimoy. As a leading man, he’s charmingly rubbish. His acting veers wildly from disinterested to too interested, with lots of mugging to the camera. And the very thought that the utterly gorgeous Miss Hampshire would even look at such a gargoyle, let alone be seduced by him, just confounds reason.

There’s also a lot of fun to be had (if you’re so minded) by the thing’s deep-rooted 70s telemovie roots, the most glaringly obvious being that during the title sequence, as yellow writing (always a giveaway) details the cast and crew, we’re treated to the best bits from the entire film we’re about to watch, just in case we didn’t want to be actually surprised by anything that’s about to happen.

Nimoy is Kovak, a Formula One driver, who suffers an hallucination during a race in the US which results in a spectacular crash. As he’s being interviewed about his miraculous escape on US television (“All of a sudden I wasn’t in Pennsylvania any more”), he’s watched by a young woman called Michelle (Hampshire), who tracks him down and quizzes him about his “vision”. Kovak’s strange premonition involved a house in Wyntham, Devon (“you can’t get much more English than that…”), a screaming woman, and a child. Michelle, who knows a lot about the occult (and sensible scarves), believes that the woman in the vision is in terrible danger and urges Kovak to go there. She tells the racing driver she is convinced he is the unwitting carrier of some sort of power “to fight the force of evil”.

But Kovak is not keen to travel to the UK with Michelle, despite reckoning she is “a great looking chick”. He tells her to leave, but is forced to change his mind when he has another vision during which he plummets into the sea. When he awakes he finds that somehow he has become sopping wet.

After drying himself off, Kovak travels to England and hooks up with Michelle, the pair arranging to go separately to the house in the vision – which, it turns out, is a hotel. Kovak, on arrival, raises a quizzical eyebrow at the stairs, then gurns in turn at the other guests. He recognises everything, and everyone, from his vision.

“No, we’ve never had a clavichord…”

A young American girl called Jenny and her mother have arrived at roughly the same time as the racing driver, and he immediately remembers the girl as being the focal point of his vision. Jenny and her mother have an assignation with Jenny’s father. At first he doesn’t turn up, but when he does he arrives in secret, contacting Jenny separately and urging her to keep his presence secret. Father and daughter enter into some sort of pact, and from that moment on the formerly sedate Jenny turns into a mini-skirted wild child. The mum has also heard a strange instrument being played somewhere in the building, which she immediately recognises as a clavichord, but when she asks the hotel manager (Mrs Faraday), she is told, with great emphasis: “No, we’ve never had a clavichord…”

(About the same point I had to pause the tape and ask “what’s a clavichord?”)

From that moment on the film shifts into a kind of whodunnit without a “dunnit”, with a host of red herrings and complications thrown up by Kovak’s increasingly incomprehensible visions.

Jenny continues to look older with each passing scene, other members of the cast start looking younger (allegedly), and Kovak dons a fantastic hat to take part in the obligatory car chase, which hinges on the unlikely premise that a racing driver in a souped-up Bentley has trouble keeping up with a knackered-looking Comma van.

Just when you think it’s all over, unintentional hilarity is added when Michelle gets clonked over the head and kidnapped, mid-chase. By now, the whole sorry mess has lived up to its title – quite what on earth is supposed to be going on is anyone’s guess. By the end of the film Kovak has managed to solve the conundrums his vision threw up, and indulges in a punch-up with a man in drag before being talked into becoming a full-time psychic investigator by his new best friend, Michelle.

It’s no real wonder that Baffled! didn’t get commissioned as a series - throughout its slightly over-long running time (it does begin to outstay its welcome towards the end with a few too many red herrings) the plot is full of inconsistencies and stupidity. It comes across as being one of those ideas which probably looked good on paper, but the main problem with this story (and, one presumes, any which would have followed it) is how to maintain any sense of interest when nothing has actually happened yet. It comes across a bit like Columbo in reverse – you know something is going to happen, and who the bad guys are, the question is can Kovak figure out what the problem is and stop it before it starts? And how, exactly, are the French police going to deal with a leather-skinned American fashion disaster and his English rose girlfriend when they turn up in Paris? As Kovak says, in his series-hunting final line: “Michelle… we’re leaving for Paris. Someone’s in trouble… I don’t know who, yet…”


Updated: February 10, 2010

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