The film has one of the wonkiest premises I've ever encountered: a semi-improvised comedy-horror fake-documentary about a film-within-a-film starring Werner Herzog as himself trying to investigate the myth of the Loch Ness Monster, and accidentally encountering the real thing. With a story like that, Incident at Loch Ness should probably be crazier than it actually is, but it's crazy enough for my tastes, and manages to work on most of the levels it aims for.
The man behind all this is Zak Penn, Hollywood screenwriter (among other things, he wrote X-Men 2). He wrote and directed the film, and how he got Herzog on board, I have no idea. Although, these days Herzog kind of seems game for whatever, so maybe Penn just asked him. Penn is also in the film, playing himself as a shallow, selfish, cowardly and ignorant Hollywood climber. Penn, the character, is the producer of Herzog's Loch Ness documentary, which is to be called The Enigma of Loch Ness. The making of that film is being documented by John Bailey (the real film's actual cinematographer) for a documentary on Herzog, Herzog in Wonderland. Penn is initially unaware of Bailey's project, and is more than a little put out by this other camera crews' presence, because it is Penn's plan -- a plan he tries to hide from Herzog -- to "heighten" the drama, and commercial viability of the Loch Ness film with special effects and actors and Playboy models. Herzog gradually catches on to Penn's manipulations, and spends much of the film struggling to make the film he set out to make.
So it's a Hollywood satire about commercialism versus art, with the brilliant and umcompromising Herzog, that singular German madman, as its hero. Yes, that is what it is, but the film is structured as, among other things, a documentary about the mysterious events and tragedies faced by the crew when they finally make it to Scotland, get on a boat and begin exploring Loch Ness. Because, we learn, two of the film's crewmembers have died. What happened? What killed them? Nobody is quite willing to say, but by the end of the film it's made abundantly clear that Penn's attempt to inject false drama into Herzog's film were completely unnecessary.
Of course, this one of the film's many meta-ironies, because, obviously, this is a fiction film we're watching (though it was originally marketed, Blair Witch-style, as a genuine documentary), and because Herzog has owned up to the fact that he manipulates his own documentaries in order to achieve what he calls "ecstatic truth". He never, to my knowledge, goes so far as to actually make up "facts", but he does stage scenes for visual impact, and ask his interview subjects to restate thoughts and ideas so that they have a more poetic feel.
It's quite possible that Herzog's presence makes Incident at Loch Ness feel, not necessarily better, but more fascinating than it actually is. Near the beginning, we get a brief overview of who Herzog is and what makes him so special, as if we needed to be reminded, with clips from Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo and My Best Fiend, as well as from Les Blank's Burden of Dreams, accompanied by Herzog's familiar ramblings about "ecstatic truth", and, for me at least, this geared me up for a truly unique and unusual film. And it's not that we don't get that, but all that "ecstatic truth" talk, as it pertains to this film, doesn't actually amount to anything. The comedy of the film -- and it's a very funny movie -- cuts that with a fair amount of absurdity, so that, after a while, if we were ever unsure whether we were watching a real documentary or not, that uncertainty doesn't last long. And because the horror film elements are not especially original (other than that they exist in this movie), any exploration of the myth of the Loch Ness Monster is pretty much rendered moot.
But I have to say, the horror stuff does work pretty well. This movie can't have cost very much, and Penn uses that fact -- and this was honestly probably always his intention -- to keep his monster effects very low-key, adding a nice air of mystery, and a fear of the unknown, that so many straight horror films don't even bother with. Much of what we see of the monster could reasonably be explained away in more logical terms, and no one in the film actually comes out and says that it was the Loch Ness Monster who attacked their boat and killed their colleagues, but they, of course, have their suspicions. And there are a couple of truly nice, creepy images that make me wish Penn would try his hand at a real, no-winking horror film.
So the film works primarily as a comedy, and partly as a horror film, and pretends to be deeper than that, but isn't really. In this regard, Herzog's presence might actually hurt the film, because if we're familiar with his work then we know what ecstatic truth is supposed to look like, and in comparison Penn's film can kind of not seem like much. Like it doesn't have anything to say, in other words. If thought about too hard, Incident at Loch Ness looks like nothing more than an elaborate game. Except -- and this is a big exception -- it really is a damn good game.