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A Messy Nessie Voyage

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page WE43

"INCIDENT AT Loch Ness" trades cannily on the mystique of Werner Herzog, the visionary German director whose legendary zeal to make films at any psychic cost is well established. For the 1977 documentary "La Soufriere," for example, he led a camera crew to Guadeloupe after hearing residents had abandoned the island in anticipation of a volcano eruption. While filming "Aguirre: the Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo" in dire conditions in the Amazon, his battles with crazed star Klaus Kinski had the director reaching for his gun.

This notoriety lures us into the movie, which seems to be a documentary within a documentary. Cinematographer John Bailey and a small crew follow the filmmaker from Los Angeles to Scotland as he prepares for his own documentary about the Loch Ness monster. Herzog's film is to be produced by Zak Penn, whose list of credits as a writer ("The Last Action Hero," "Behind Enemy Lines," "X2") does not seem to fit the profile for a Herzog venture. But his dedication to the project and his reverence for the director seem genuine enough.

Zak Penn, left, brandishes a flare gun at director Werner Herzog aboard the Expedition IV. (Twentieth Century Fox)

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Penn expresses his discomfort with Bailey's crew at these early stages of the Ness project, but he allows them to film everything, which includes some testy negotiations.

As the two crews move to Scotland, Penn's contentiousness with Herzog grows. It seems that Penn's got some tacky, raised-in-Hollywood ideas to pump up Herzog's film. But Herzog, in search of what he dubs "ecstatic truth," wants to take a boat into Loch Ness and interview some locals and so-called Nessie experts to debunk the myth and underscore humankind's essential need to create monsters.

Penn's role in the production becomes increasingly, uh, fishy. Why does he insist on naming the boat Expedition IV, just because it sounds cool to him? Why does he produce a set of matching jumpsuit uniforms (whose Expedition logo is misspelled) for Herzog and crew? And who is this attractive model dressed in the same uniform, who suddenly joins the crew? And what was that swirling, moving thing in the frigid water?

"Incident at Loch Ness" provides more than enough clues about its true endgame for keen viewers. That agenda is most intriguing when it's still shrouded in semi-mystery. But as it becomes clearer, our excitement over seeing Herzog at work on another "mad" project sinks like a 50-ton anchor. We realize with increasing dismay that "Loch Ness" is a movie about the bald, weaselly Penn and not about Herzog at all. To be sure, there is a scaly monster in this loch, but it's above the water and directing everything. Where's Klaus Kinski when you really need him?

INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS (PG-13, 94 minutes) -- Contains obscenity. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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