HCF REWIND NO.114. VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE AKA DAIKAIJU BARAN, MONSTER BARAN [Japan,1958]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 85 min/ 69 min [US version]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A rare species of butterfly native to Siberia is found in a mysterious valley along the Kitakami River in Japan. The first two men sent to investigate are killed in a landslide.The nearby villagers insist that the deaths were a result of the wrath of their mountain god Baradagi-Sanjin. A larger expedition is dispatched to the area, funded by the film company “20th Century Mysteries Solved”, and including reporter Horiguchi and Yuriko the sister of one of the men killed. The natives warn them that their presence will make Baradagi-Sanjin their monster god, who they say caused the deaths, angry, but to no avail. A local boy goes missing looking for his dog and when found by the lake, out of it rises Varan, a prehistoric monster, who proceeds to destroy the village and head for Tokyo…..
After a good run of quality films from Toho, with even the sole film not directed by Ishiro Honda Godzilla Raids Again being decent monster movie entertainment, Varan The Unbelievable comes as a distinct disappointment, especially from Honda. Somewhat lacking in the usual conviction and imagination, it’s a pedestrian affair that certainly passes the time if you love your monsters, but, upon watching it again for this review, I was instantly reminded why it’s not a Toho film I put on very often. It’s certainly not because it’s in black and white. Despite featuring loads of monster footage, it gets overly repetitious, with over half the film consisting of the military trying to destroy the creature in scenes which are none-too-exciting and have a tendency to drag. It’s still quite impressive technically, and wa the last Toho monster movie for ages to aim for a adult, serious, and relatively realistic feel. The ones after this would really go to town on the fantasy elements and be more family-orientated.
This film had an interesting background which no doubt was the cause of much of its awkwardness. It was planned as a US TV movie, running just under an hour, to which Toho would provide the special effects. The same American company AB-PT Productions had been involved in the proposed Godzilla Raids Again re-edit which would have constructed a new story around the Japanese special effects footage. When the deal collapsed, Toho cropped the already-shot footage down to their widescreen format TohoScope, finished the film, then extended the script and shot new scenes to turn the movie into a feature. It was the first of many scripts written by Shinichi Sekizawa, whose work was usually lighter than Takeshi Kimura’s, though Ken Kuronuma wrote the original story. It was a disappointment when released and the title creature would become one of the least popular of Toho’s menagerie, only going on to have two cameos in later films. Four years later in 1962, Crown International released the US version which bore little resemblance to the original movie. They mostly just used the Varan footage and shot a new film around it. More on this atrocity, which makes the original version of the film look like a masterpiece by comparision, at the bottom of this review.
Though it opens with an unrelated rocket launching and rather cryptic narration, Varan The Unbelievable is pretty good for the first twenty minutes at least, even if we can immediately recognise King Kong from the superstitious natives who worship a monster, natives who, in one daft bit, are quickly convinced by their visitors to shed their beliefs and to look for the missing boy despite having worshipped Varan for centuries. Varan’s valley habitat looks quite mysterious and the film doesn’t waste much time in showing its title character, who rises out of the lake in just under twenty minutes. Sadly matters grind to a halt after Varan destroys the village. The rest of the film, and I mean the rest of the film, mostly just has the military attacking Varan as he makes his way towards Japan. Having Kenji go to rescue Yuriko [with another stupid bit where he has no difficulty lifting an enormous tree off her] would lead one to suspect they are the two main human protagonists, but they are then off-screen for much of the rest of the picture which just has the military coming up with various ways to destroy Varan and failing. The scenes often go and on and refuse to build to a higher level of excitement, while poor Varan isn’t even given an on-screen death, perishing un-dramatically underwater.
Varan looks pretty good in design. A cross between Godzilla, a draco lizard and a kappa [water sprites from Japanese folklore], he initially impresses with the detail put into the suit [spot the muscles, for example!], and has a great moment which looks forward to the wonderfully cool and crazy things they would put in later kaiju eiga where he suddenly stretches out his arms to reveal membranes underneath and takes off like a flying squirrel, but he never does this again in the film. An inordinate amount of Varan’s footage consists of close-ups of his face, and while early scenes tend to have him on all fours while the camera often fails to hide the fact that the guy wearing the suit [good old Haruo Nakajima again] is crawling on his hands and knees, later on he just stands up more and more. The special effects, if slightly more limited than those in Rodan and the first two Godzillas [Varan only destroys a village and an airport], are mostly up to Eiji Tsuburaya’s standard, and the sets are impressively detailed, something necessitated by Varan being smaller than Godzilla, Rodan and Anguirus, though the tanks and rocket launchers tend to jerk around unrealistically. This was also the first Toho film to use footage from earlier films, here Godzilla providing some shots of buildings getting crushed and military weaponry.
Honda’s experience in the army leads to rather too much mobilisation footage [not for the first time], though there are the usual number of superbly-composed shots featuring the human characters. I don’t think his heart was really in this film though, coming across as it does as a low-key rehash of Godzilla at times. The bits between the action mostly consists of military briefings and a scientist telling us things like Varan being a varanopode, a rare prehistoric animal that lived throughout the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous periods. The human characters are fairly uninteresting; I’m guessing that Kenji and Yuriko form a romantic bond but we don’t really see it. Akihiko Hirata turns up as a scientist but seems ill-at-ease. The odd comedic bit, like two truck drivers beating a hasty retreat when told to drive a load of explosives near Varan, seems out of place in the film.
The static and repetitious action that makes up much of Varan The Unbelievable would verge on boring without Akira Ifukube’s thrilling score, which pounds along in the background, never slowing down for the usual moments of beauty or pathos. His opening theme, with its slow but powerful rhythmn and animalistic melody, really evokes Varan’s size and power and the military marches are exciting, though even more than Godzilla most of the material in this score would find its way into later films [which I will note] as the composer, perhaps because he was just as busy doing non-film music, started to repeat himself. It’s one of the best things about a film which, if it was an American production of the same time, would hold up okay. As a Japanese monster movie though, it’s rather below par, failing to provide much of the audaciousness and crazy entertainment value that fans love, and might be the least interesting of all of Honda’s fantastical works.
This was the first Toho monster movie that the studio dubbed themselves for export release, using a company in Japan called Frontier Enterprises. These dubs were rarely very good and for the next few years they would be re-dubbed, usually using people that sounded more Japanese, in the US. The US edit of Varan The Unbelievable though features no dubbing at all and is an atrocity. They seem to have had the Americanisation of Godzilla in mind, but totally botched it, while also showing no respect for the original film at all. They used about 30 min worth of footage from the Japanese movie, nearly all of it monster and military footage, and nearly all of it put in the second half. The rest of the film used an entirely American cast in a very sluggishly told story about an American military scientist Cmdr. James Bradley conducting desalinisation experiments in the salt water lake which end up awakening the monster. He and his Japanese wife spend most of the second half trapped in a cave while the shortened Japanese action scenes play out. The editing between the new and old footage is dreadful, the script rather condescending to the Japanese, while of course the music was changed too, becoming Albert Glasser’s soundtracks to The Amazing Colossal Man and Teenage Caveman. I sat through this rubbish when it showed on the Sci-Fi Channel and almost gave up on the thing. Avoid.