Tuesday, October 14, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 9: Incident at Loch Ness (2004)

Werner Herzog is a truly larger-than-life figure. The man has directed a multitude of films, many of which a less ambitious director might retreat from in fear--whether it's as artistically risky as remaking Nosferatu or are as legitimately dangerous as hauling a an actual fucking steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo.

The man is, however, clearly not without a sense of humor. Watch Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man more than once and you begin to see that Herzog is, as they say, taking the piss throughout the whole thing. And nobody without a sense of humor could possibly have made Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

Herzog is, most certainly, not without a sense of humor about himself. Nothing demonstrates this quite so clearly as today's movie, Incident At Loch Ness. The film is one of those delightful films that nobody knows how to categorize--which can be a real detriment to anybody who might watch it happening across it, alas.

For instance, the film is--for all intents and purposes--a horror film. Its premise is a film crew looking for the Loch Ness Monster, while simultaneously faking her existence so they don't turn up empty-handed--only for a hostile Nessie to turn out to be all too real. Yet, the film is also, without a doubt, a comedy. Add in the involvement of a respected director like Herzog and nobody can quite figure out how to pigeonhole the damn thing into a stereotypical category.

My library has the DVD filed under "Drama," which is the farthest thing from what the actual film is that it might as well be filed under "Animated.'

We begin with an introduction to Werner Herzog, playing himself, as he gives some of his background to a film crew, headed by John Bailey (himself), shooting a documentary about him in July of 2003. Here Herzog teases that his next project is to be a documentary called "The Enigma of Loch Ness." Herzog is attracted to Nessie by the fact that he doesn't believe in Nessie one bit, showing off the most famous photo of Nessie and commenting on how the water gives away that it's a miniature. (Oddly he never touches on the fact that the photo in question was revealed, decades ago, to be a toy submarine and modelling clay by the man who took it)

As Herzog and his wife, Lena, prepare a supper for some guests, Zak Penn (himself), arrives. Penn, who is normally a screenwriter of such films as The Last Action Hero, X-Men 2, and Elektra, is serving as the producer of "Enigma of Loch Ness." Penn is a a bit unnerved by the documentary crew's cameras, which seems already a bit suspicious--and he requests to talk with Herzog un-miked. The crew films the conversation anyways, but aside from talks about possible production trouble it's nothing too bizarre.

Then Herzog requests that Penn find him a Nessie expert who is "obsessed, but credible." Herzog doesn't want someone easily dismissed as a whackjob. I mean, that's more the History Channel's thing.

There's a few amusing celebrity cameos as Herzog's guests arrive for dinner, including Jeff Goldblum and Crispin Glover. More relevantly, here we meet the director of photography for "Enigma of Loch Ness", Gabriel Beristain (himself), who was hired by Penn. The first hints of dissension begin to show here as Beristain, Penn, and Herzog discuss the movie. Herzog doesn't understand why the other two are talking about lighting and recreations for the documentary. Penn's manages to avoid answering the questions of either men, but successfully redirects them from the issue.

The next day, the documentary crew follows Herzog around as he prepares for his trip. Bailey asks Herzog why Penn is producing the Nessie documentary when Herzog usually produces his own films. Herzog explains that he basically couldn't pass up the money and enthusiasm that Penn brought to the production.

Once in Scotland, Herzog is greeted by producton coordinator Robert O'Meara (himself), who is none too enthused about yet another Nessie project in his country but clearly couldn't pass up working with such a legend. Herzog is eager to get to work on the project but Penn seems to be trying to herd him out of the production office, and greets the presence of Bailey's crew with clear disappointment.

At the first production meeting we are introduced to Russell Williams (himself) the sound mixer and David Davidson (himself), the captain of the boat the documentary will be using. Herzog is a bit dismayed that Penn and Beristain want to shoot for five days, which Herzog, O'Meara, and Williams find excessive. And then Penn whips out the film's jumpsuits--all designed like uniforms. Herzog, clearly beginning to think that Penn is a childish fool, decides it's time to go ahead and get started on filming some local interview footage and landscape footage.

Penn, meanwhile, heads off to a secret meeting--that Bailey's crew films without his knowledge. Pen is discussing the plans for a remote controlled decoy Nessie with a technician. Whatever Penn is up to, clearly he doesn't want Herzog to know about it.

After shooting a lot of good footage, Herzog is sitting down to a meal with Beristain when Penn brings in Michael Karnow (himself) and introduces him as the cryptozoologist that Herzog was looking for. Herzog buys Karnow as exactly the kind of suitably credible yet slightly insane talking head he wanted, but Karnow's behavior around Bailey's cameras is slightly...odd.

However, the crew encounters a problem: Williams can't get good sound aboard the boat because the engines are too loud. So Penn browbeats Captain Davidson into installing a smaller, quieter engine in the boat--against Davidson's objections that it's not safe. The day before the boat sets off, Bailey interviews all the crew who all seem very optimistic about the project.

The day of their depature, Karnow begins driving Davidson mad with all the bizarre cables and ropes he sets up aboard the boat. And then Kitana Baker (herself) arrives, as the crew's "sonar operator." Everyone is puzzled by her appearance, especially Herzog. So clearly her presence is Penn's idea. Just like the misspelled jumpsuits and renaming the boat Discovery IV--despite there having not been any Discovery's I, II, or III.

While Herzog interviews Karnow and sets up actual equipment, Penn has Beristain and Williams film Baker doffing her jumpsuit in favor of a skimpy bikini to dive into the Loch and set up "sonar equipment." Naturally, she nearly freezes herself to death. When Herzog catches the filming of this bit, he is furious that something is going on without his knowledge.

However, there is no explanation coming for as Herzog is demanding answers from Penn, Karnow shouts out that he has seen something in the water. It turns out to be nothing, but when the crew is setting up a shot for Herzog to directly address the camera--something does appear in the water, which Bailey barely captures. Nobody thinks anything of it and heads back to shore for the day.

Herzog confronts Penn the next day because he's figured out that Penn is trying to set up a very dubious hoax. The prop guy walking in with the room with the remote controlled Nessie only seals the deal. Herzog is ready to walk off the project, but somehow can't bring himself to do it. So the crew heads out on day two, with Penn at least acting somewhat contrite. The engine is struggling, but nobody pays that much mind.

Penn convinces Herzog to let Baker continue playing a sonar operator and interview her about the equipment, especially since---to her credit--she actually researched for the role. During the shooting of this bit, Beristain notices something in the water behind Herzog and Baker. Beristain mostly misses it, but Bailey gets a decent shot--a large, dark hump breaks the surface and submerges. It leaves a wake, surfaces once more, and then disappears. Beristain assumes that Penn set up an effects shot, but Penn--who missed the sighting--expresses ignorance.

In the pub that evening, nobody can decide what they saw. Some think it's Penn, Karnow thinks it's actually Herzog--but Herzog is definitely not sure that anybody could have pulled off that effect so convincingly.Poor Karnow is attacked in the pub by some angry locals for being involved in some kind of hoax at the expense of Loch Ness. The next morning Williams and Beristain are revealed to have deserted the production. Penn persuades Herzog to film--at which point we get a great exchange between the two about Herzog's history of difficult productions.

Herzog and Baker set up the sonar while O'Meara and Penn set up the fake Nessie prop and toss it overboard. Herzog refuses to film it--so Penn pulls out the flare gun and aims it at Herzog, in a deliberate reference to Herzog supposedly aiming a gun at Klaus Kinski. Herzog wearily explains that A) that story isn't true and B) the flare gun isn't even loaded.

And then their argument is interrupted when something slams into the boat. They decide to head for shore as a fog rolls in--but there's a sonar signal following them. Oh, and Penn had ordered someone to remove the guts of the boat's radio because of the noise interfering with the sound recording...and then the engine gives up the ghost.

The sonar signal comes back and slams the boat again, this time smashing a hole in the hull. Herzog sets off a flare, but O'Meara points out that nobody around will come because they all think this is a hoax. And then Karnow is knocked overboard, and the "hoax" closes in on him. It's unclear if the creature, the cold water, or his own panic does him in but Karnow disappears in the fog.

Penn absconds with the life raft (and O'Meara), and leaves the others to their fate. But the destroyed life raft floats back to the boat. Someone must swim for shore, but the water is freezing cold and there is only one wetsuit aboard. And the creature in the water is getting more and more aggressive...

Hey, Klaus Kinski has a cameo!
Doesn't exactly sound like a "Drama", does it?

However, it's hard to say if the film falls more into the horror or comedy genre. There are definitely stretches that play the concept as straight as possible, as with the later sequences of Nessie attacking the boat and crew--but the film credits roll over zany music and then there's the fact that Zak Penn (who directed, along with co-writing the film with Werner Herzog) plays himself out to be the most self-centered, opportunistic slimeball possible.

The film is definitely more hilarious than it is terrifying, so classifying it as a drama makes even less sense than you might have thought at the beginning. But if movies like Evil Dead 2 are qualified as horror, then this film definitely qualifies. Although you could qualify it as a "found footage" film, it actually is a "mockumentary," complete with after-the-fact interviews with the characters sprinkled throughout. Obviously this gives some of the film away in that we know who won't be dying, but it works.

Everybody is essentially playing exaggerated versions of themselves and it works wonderfully. Herzog and Penn are especially great; Herzog just seems to be generally charismatic, while Penn does an excellent job playing up the scheming, opportunistic douchebag role.

And what of the monster, you ask? The filmmakers wisely hedge their bets there. Whether due to budget or an intentional aura of mystery, we never see much more of the creature than its humped back slicing through the water. This allows the film to avoid having to include any explanations of what exactly the film crew is dealing with, which just makes the creature that much more threatening--hell, we don't even know if it's hostile because it's predatory or just territorial.

The answers don't really matter. Not in a story like this, where someone sticks their head in somewhere it isn't welcome and gets it bitten off. All you really need to know is that someone went looking for a monster and they found more than they bargained for. Or, in this case, two people both went looking for something they didn't think existed--and they both found out they were wrong.

And the film actually wants you to laugh at the look on their faces.

Thus concludes day 9 of HubrisWeen. Check out what the other maniacs reviewed by clicking the banner above, won't you?

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