Incident at Loch Ness (2004): A Clever Monster Mockumentary
Laughs (and Leviathans) Lurk in this Loch
Incident at Loch Ness (2004) is a difficult beast to categorize. In some ways, it’s a goofy mockumentary along the same lines as Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984)—complete with bigger-than-life showbiz stereotypes and a full cast of characters who take themselves way too seriously. At other times, though, it will surprise you with total visual and audio immersion, going all out Cloverfield (2008) to ratchet up the tension and keep you second-guessing. The end result is a film that twists your notion of what it means to have well-defined genres into a pretzel, sprinkles it with some salty jokes for texture, and then serves it up with a spicy jalapeño cheese sauce of thrills and surprises to keep things from going stale. Forgive the food analogies.
Incident at Loch Ness stars Werner Herzog as himself, a highly regarded filmmaker who is about to set out for Scotland to shoot a documentary about the legend surrounding the Loch Ness Monster. We are introduced to him at his home through the lens of an entirely different documentary crew that is filming a separate documentary entirely about Herzog (stay with me, the hard part is over). The rest of Herzog’s Scotland crew is introduced as they arrive one by one: the producer Zak Penn, the cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, the sound mixer Russell Williams II and a few others, who all play themselves.
Surprisingly, the documentary style flows relatively smoothly through the opening introductions, allaying any fears I had about the inherent clunkiness and methodical pacing often associated with the film style. The documentary crew itself also helps to break the boundaries of that sterile genre by showing us their personalities through their style of filming. At one point, Penn wants to talk to Herzog privately, so Herzog removes his microphone and kindly asks the camera crew to stop filming. They quickly oblige and the film goes dark, only to cut suddenly to the next scene: a slow zoom into Penn and Herzog talking on the other side of a slightly-ajar door—complete with eavesdropping subtitles—so we can understand everything they’re saying. Not only does this meta twist serve a comedic purpose, but it also brings the viewer into the film by giving him the eyes and personality of the mischievous camera/camera crew, who spend the entire runtime poking their noses into other people’s business and generally being loveably annoying.
Once Herzog makes it to Scotland, he immediately encounters on-site problems and drama within his own production crew. The local production coordinator asks him why he wants to focus on the Loch Ness Monster when there are so many other social and economic issues in the community that are not only more deserving of his documentary, but could actually bring about real change for the better. Herzog answers that that’s “television stuff” and then goes on to list a bunch of Scottish stereotypes (“highland games,” “whiskey makers,” etc.) that he wants to use for establishing shots. Meanwhile, Zak goes about town making ridiculous demands of the locals—like telling the captain of his chartered boat that he’ll have to remove the engine and put in a smaller, quieter one a day before filming—and generally meddling behind the scenes. He has coordinated jumpsuits made for Herzog’s crew and when Herzog questions what they are for he answers, “It’s an official expedition jump suit. What do you mean what is it for? It’s so, like, if you fall in the water or something we know you’re one of our own…” (because of course there’s no need to waste time saving anyone else).
Eventually they begin filming on the loch and things go from bad to worse to downright eerie, like a Coen brothers film with just a smidgeon less murder/Steve Buscemi. As tensions reach a critical mass that threatens the continuation of the project, Herzog’s crew begin to catch glimpses of strange wakes and shapes in the water around the boat. What ensues is a battle for survival against a pissed off Nessie that remains remarkably nerve-racking, despite the fact that some of Herzog’s crew clearly survive because they are reflecting on the events as they occur in the finished documentary. That said, I must say we don’t necessarily hear from everyone in the finished documentary…
Incident at Loch Ness impressed me not only in its unique challenge of our preconceptions about genres and artistic mediums, but also in its imaginative and subtle approach to comedy. No one is delivering punch lines or getting repeatedly wacked in the crotch (though I’m not saying these comedic staples don’t have a special place in my heart). Instead, this film trusts the audience to appreciate the natural absurdity of the characters and their peculiar—though plausible—personalities. For example, Zak secretly recruits a Playboy model (Kitana Baker) as the “sonar expert” for the sole purpose of having her walk around on screen in a bikini to liven up the documentary. Zak’s shameless ploy is entertaining in itself, but the comedy is pushed a step further when, after the boat has stalled and is left at the mercy of Nessie, Kitana reveals that she actually did some research on sonar operation to prepare for her role. Her part is altered from an embarrassingly misogynistic film device to one of the few competent members of the crew in a time of crisis. It’s not implausible and no one makes a big deal out of this revelation, which is what makes the unexpected role reversal so entertaining.
I won’t spoil the rest of the film’s gems (you can’t miss the candid insanity of the crypto zoologist or the exquisitely-timed sarcasm of the local Scots), but I will recommend Incident at Loch Ness to anyone looking for a creative comedy and a unique addition to the Loch Ness Monster canon (assuming that’s an actual thing).