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Varan the Unbelievable - Review

A Review by Mike Bogue

1958 Japanese original:

2 Stars - Fair

1962 Americanization:

2 Stars - Fair

Japanese release: October 15, 1958

American release: December 1962 (released by Crown International on a double bill with First Spaceship On Venus)

Direction: Ishiro Honda

Screenplay: Shinichi Sekizawa

Original Story: Takeshi Kuronuma

Music: Akira Ifubuke

Special Effects: Eiji Tsuburaya

Producer: Tomoyuki Tanaka

Varan the Unbelievable Poster. Case closed:  The 1962 Myron Healey version of Varan is clearly superior to the 1958 Japanese original.

THERE! Thought that would get your attention!  Actually, I don’t believe the opening sentiment.  But I do believe the Americanized version improves upon the Japanese original in two respects.  We’ll get to those later.  First, a word or two hundred about the 1958 Toho version.

As a monster, Varan combines elements of Godzilla, Angilas, and Rodan, Toho’s previous cinematic daikaiju.  And as Stan Hyde argues in his Varan the Unbelievable review in G-FAN # 72, Varan is a great-looking monster.  In fact, he’s one of the only early kaiju designed with detailed musculature.

As a four-legged behemoth, Varan proves even more effective than Angilas in Godzilla Raids Again; the special effects crew carefully films most of Varan’s scenes to avoid shots of the monster waddling about on its knees.  Instead, the illusion of a quadrupedal kaiju is well-maintained, especially when Varan destroys the native village and then lumbers up the tree-studded hill.

His brief flying scene, inexplicably cut from the Americanization, is as good as the effects in Rodan or Western monster movies of the time.  However, nothing comes of it.  We see Varan spread the membranes beneath his arms, take flight, and that’s it – no episodes of aerial combat with JSDF jets, no scenes of a flying Varan diving into the sea, and certainly no moments of Varan taking flight over a Japanese city.  This makes the creature’s flying ability seem almost pointless; apparently its inclusion is merely a convenient plot device to move the monster closer to Tokyo. And therein lies the problem with most of Toho’s Giant  Monster Baran.

The script itself is rife with disjointed ideas and tiresome contrivance.  For example, much is made of the village people’s awe of the dreaded supernatural monster of the lake, and it appears that Varan only leaves his watery domain because of a violation of the taboo protecting the monster’s territorial imperative.  Subsequently, the creature flattens the village.

But a little later, scientists tell us that Varan is a prehistoric monster, not supernatural at all.  The extensive story development of the villagers and the monster’s identity is completely dropped.  So we’re supposed to think it’s a complete coincidence that Varan arises from the lake and embarks upon his short-lived wrath at the same time that the heroes and villagers violate the monster’s taboo?  Apparently so.

Varan the Unbelievable Still.

Unfortunately, the whole film has a rushed and wandering feel to it.  Episodes intended to evoke suspense instead inspire irritation.  For example, in a convenient fog that fluffs up, Varan topples a tree that pins the heroine’s legs.  The hero then comes to her rescue.  In the meantime, Varan seems to have gone away, but then comes back to this same spot to menace the heroine.  Where did the monster go during the interim?  Is he walking in circles?   With apologies to Monty Python, is Varan a clueless kaiju with absolutely no sense of direction?

Why does the monster care about the heroine anyway?  Why does it trap the hero and heroine in a cave?  Does it want to eat them?  Crush them?  Ask directions to Tokyo?

Near the finale, a similarly lackluster “suspense” moment occurs when the hero trips while running from the explosives-filled truck.  Ho-hum.  All such episodes in the film appear as though they are simply tossed in on the spur (or should that be claw?) of the moment.

Now perhaps it seems I am being too harsh on Varan.  After all, there are discrepancies in most monster movies, the main one being, “Why do monsters attack cities anyway?”  Some monsters do have a motivation to do so (Gorgo and Mothra, for instance).  Others don’t (think Rodan and Toho Kong).  But the sad thing about Varan is that it was made by highly skilled craftspersons, yet save for the special effects, the rest of the film is distinctly sub-par for Toho productions of the fifties and early sixties.

However, Varan’s special effects are, for the most part, very special.  The monster’s destruction of the native village and Haneda Airport is spectacularly detailed, making expert use of slow-motion photography.  Yes, some clips from the original Godzilla are used, but only sparingly.  Still, since Varan’s effects look fine as they are, what was the point in using Big G stock footage?  In a word, padding.

The Japanese version also boasts extensive battles between the military and Varan, especially at sea.  Why these entertaining clips were cut from the Americanized version is anyone’s guess.  Nevertheless, the battle scenes sometimes go on too long and become too repetitious – again, a sign of uncharacteristic carelessness on the part of Toho’s “Golden Age” team.  Also, the jets aren’t terribly impressive, though the bigger bombers are nice; Varan nabbing one of the latter planes out of the sky is a nice touch.

Varan the Unbelievable Still.

In addition to the great monster and the mostly good special effects, another element of Varan that excels is the soundtrack.  Akira Ifubuke’s arresting music score set the foundation for the sounds of kaiju epics to come, from a catchy theme he later used in Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster to the natives’ chant that later morphed into the Faro Islanders’ Kong anthem in King Kong vs. Godzilla.  If only the rest of Varan lived up to the quality of Ifubuke’s great music!  Alas, it doesn’t.

Now the Japanese Varan is still entertaining enough.  But as a kaiju eiga, it loses its bearings quickly, and its waywardness robs the film of its potential (albeit modest) monster-on-the-loose impact.

Many have noted that Varan was originally intended to air on American television, but American backing apparently evaporated somewhere along the line.  This may explain the film’s rushed, occasionally slipshod quality.

Others have noted that Varan’s storyline follows almost to the letter American monster movies of the 1950s.  That’s true, but it’s still no excuse for the film’s excess contrivances and aimless direction.

And oh yeah, remember how I said that the Americanized version improved upon the Japanese original in two respects?  One of them is Varan’s roar.

In the Japanese version, one flaw about Varan is that the monster’s mouth doesn’t open and shut when it roars.  Instead, the mouth seems to be at a constant half-wobble.  This robs Varan of some of its kaiju credibility.

In the American version, Varan makes a constant rumbling noise, and this fits much more naturally with the ajar mouth.

Varan the Unbelievable Still.

In addition, the American Varan the Unbelievable never lets the effects scenes go on too long, and in some cases, tighter editing enlivens the scenes.  (I’m sure this last observation will have some kaiju fans bombarding my residence with bricks, but that’s okay – I’ve got titanium walls.)

As for the 1962 American version per se, like Godzilla vs. Megalon, it has become a favorite target for abusive invective.  Yes, it’s slow.  Yes, it’s sexist.  Yes, Myron Healey’s treatment of the villagers is high-handed.  But when I first saw this movie on a Saturday night Late Show back in 1968, I loved it.  After all, at that time, my decidedly younger self was willing to suffer through interminable “human filler” to get to the monster stuff.  And also at the time, the “people plot” seemed no worse than that of plenty of other giant monster movies.

So, resolved – yes, the Japanese version is superior.  But also resolved – the American version still holds a nostalgic place in this kaiju sentimentalist’s heart.

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