Incident at Loch Ness, a 2004 comedy new to DVD, is a hoax. There is nothing real about the “incident.” Not the career overview film about director Werner Herzog that is the basis for the film’s narrative. Not “The Enigma of Loch Ness,” the imaginary movie the noted maverick filmmaker plans to make with Hollywood insider Zak Penn. Not the events that occur once everyone arrives in Scotland, and not the final product. Heck, even this new digital presentation from Fox is a dodge, filled with secret Easter Eggs, fake commentaries, joke narratives and contradictory featurettes. After spending some time with this movie, you too will start to wonder what’s real and what’s a swindle.
This much is certain: Penn, a Tinsel Town scribe of some note, wanted to make a “mockumentary” in the tradition of This is Spinal Tap, but with more of the “you are there” sensibility that distinguished The Blair Witch Project. He hired Herzog to “act,” drafted a screenplay describing a film crew’s fatal trip to the legendary Scottish lake, and set his subterfuge in motion. He leaked news stories concerning the famed German director’s new, top-secret project—Herzog was determined to go to Loch Ness and disprove the existence of its famous “monster” once and for all. A BBC film crew contacted Penn about tagging along to capture the shoot.
At first, the fake film is the focus of Incident at Loch Ness. Herzog appears preparing for his film, discussing logistics with Penn, even shopping for razor blades before the big trip. At the same time, we eavesdrop on conversations where it is obvious that Herzog is being had: Penn plans on using special effects and actors to fabricate “production value” for his under-appreciated auteur. He is so desperate for this collaboration to work that he will guarantee a monster sighting. As additional interviews gather opinions from the crew (Blade II cinematographer Gabriel Beristain and soundman extraordinaire Russell Williams among them), plans disintegrate and tensions mount. A bizarre scientist who studies “imaginary” creatures (Michael Karnow) shows up and repeatedly baits Herzog. Penn countermands his director during filming, bringing on a swimsuit model (Kitana Baker). And a large, ominous shape keeps skimming the surface of the water.
From here, Incident at Loch Ness becomes a frenetic blending of chaotic scenes, conflicting explanations and, ultimately, a horror film complete with an action-packed tragic ending. We view “found” video from that last night on the loch, plus the testimonials of survivors. And so the question arises: did this really happen? Did Herzog add yet another milestone to his resume by discovering the truth about Nessie? And did he do so at the cost of human life?
The answer, of course, is that it’s all fiction. Anyone paying attention can see through the less than subtle satire of moviemaking by imbecilic committee. And you’ll either tune in to it or find everything about Incident at Loch Ness to be self-indulgent. Frankly, as a comedy, it is more clever than sidesplitting. The obvious jokes are occasionally comic, but often just outrageous for stupidity’s sake. The understated themes are more effective, for instance, the notion that manipulation can sidetrack even the best intentions. Incident delightfully skewers ego and incompetence, and the DVD itself carries over this concept. Half the presentation is made up of “real” material, deleted scenes, outtakes, and narratives filled with accusations, anger, and talk of lawsuits. The other portion is the reveal, the sound of hucksters sitting back and loving every minute of their practical joke. Herzog and Penn make it clear in the “non-bullshit” commentary (one of three on the disc) that their motive was simple. They wanted to hoax a hoax. The result would be something as fun for the filmmakers as for the audience. And mostly, it is.
Incident at Loch Ness also has something sane to say about the world of monsters, myths, and legends. Herzog’s private thesis is that society needs demons, that fear and the creatures who bring it allow those feeling disconnected to gain attention and affection. Certainly, some of his comments are woefully wacky (he argues that only 400-pound women from Deep South trailer parks ever claim that they are abducted and gang-raped by aliens), but when he drops the disrespect and actually explains his ideas, they make sense, and one could imagine him heading out to investigate. But what does it mean to falsify a creature via Hollywood F/X to disprove a myth? You never can tell if he’s on the level, or off his nut.
This is just one of several perplexing pieces to Incident at Loch Ness’ puzzle. Though wildly entertaining and nicely evocative (Penn, for all his puffery, has a flair for framing Nessie’s lake in beautiful, gloomy 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen grayness), it’s hard to label this scam a complete success. It never fully explores its issues, drops characters and concerns too easily, occasionally muddles its multiple filmic points of view, and is often not as biting as it thinks it is. We might marvel at the arrogance and snicker at the inanity, but the belly laughs are few and far between. Still, something about the loch, its deep dark water mystery and nightmarish symbolism, keeps us engaged. So maybe Herzog has a point. Perhaps, even through the veil of farce, we long to know the truth. We want to know if monsters do exist.
There is no such reality to be had in Incident at Loch Ness. From the Hollywood home where we first meet Herzog, to the accusations and arguments that break out during the DVD (during the first 10 minutes of the bogus commentary track, our filmmakers get into a staged scuffle) everything is a lie, a fiction forwarded by Penn and his compatriots. And while the reasons for such a scam always appear personal, at least Incident takes the idea to heady, multi-media extremes. There may never be a definite answer as to what, if anything, lives in the bottom of a murky lake in Scotland, but Herzog and Penn don’t challenge that myth. They are out to create their own. And they almost pull it off.