Varan (1958) [Crown International]

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (0.5/5)
August 7, 2005 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Varan, the Unbelievable, the Americanized version of Great Monster Varan, is a movie that can really only offer one concrete thing: a newfound appreciation for the Japanese version. Varan, the Unbelievable is about as bad as it gets in terms of Americanized monster movies; it is a butchered corpse of a film that truly deserves just about the lowest score one can give. Perhaps a lot of the trouble can be attributed to the lackluster Japanese version of the film; however, Varan, the Unbelievable makes Great Monster Varan look like Seven Samurai (1954) in comparison. In fact, the two versions are barely the same movie as it is. The entire plot, which was at least solid in its original form, was completely butchered and replaced with a Z-grade story surrounding the exploits of Joe Western-wannabe Commander James Bradley and his painfully stereotypical wife/secretary Anna. Not only was the plot brutally murdered, but the original footage was so butchered that minutes and minutes of monster action were subtracted, including one of the more interesting scenes that displays Varan's most unique ability: a modified glide. To add insult to injury, one of Akira Ifukube's most brilliant scores of all time was hacked from the film and replaced by stock music. In the end, a modest film with only a few unique and momentous additions to the kaiju genre was robbed of every last breath of life and stripped of the few things that made it watchable. Varan, the Unbelievable is simply a complete mess.

On the island of Kunishiroshima, Commander James Bradley was assigned to scout a location for a secret chemical test. A remote lake, bordering an ancient tribe of mysterious natives, was confirmed as the perfect body of water in which Operation Shizuka could be performed. The experiment, designed to make traditional methods of distillation a thing of the past, could potentially contaminate the water. Therefore, the natives would have to be evacuated, but their resolve to stay put hindered the progression of the experiment. They were convinced that the test would disturb the Obaki, a monster of tremendous power, who lived in the depths of the water. In the end, force was ultimately deemed necessary, and the military base in the nearby city of Oneda dispatched troops to enforce the exodus of the villagers. As a result, the press bestowed upon Bradley the unsettling title: "The Tyrant of Kunishiroshima." Public opinion, combined with his wife's dissatisfaction with this course of action, ultimately led Bradley to call off the relocation procedures. Surely, the villagers could be kept safe from any of the experiment's side effects as long as they were kept away from the lake. On October 17, the tests were conducted. The Japanese Self-Defense Force launched the anti-saline charges into the lake, and in a very short period of time, the lake became the scene of a fish kill. Water samples were analyzed, and it was revealed that something was obstructing the natural settling process in the lake, thereby disrupting the experiment.

Meanwhile, a JSDF troop sat down to have a cigarette, when suddenly he witnessed the approach of a gargantuan monster. He began to shoot, to no avail. In the shock of the moment, he simply dropped dead. The following morning, a giant footprint was discovered in the vicinity. Almost simultaneously, the JSDF began to fire upon the lake, for the grotesque head of some unknown creature began to break the surface. The monster retreated, and returned after five long hours. Commander Bradley finally witnessed the horror himself. This time, the monster did not retreat… He began to topple the forests and Earth, killing those unfortunate enough to lie in his path. Military vehicles were overturned, and sheer chaos ensued! James Bradley, Anna, and Captain Kishi were all cornered in a cave near the hills, trying to escape the jagged claw of their terrible reptilian oppressor. Luckily, flares were dropped from above, and the remarkable light display distracted the monster long enough for his trapped quarry to escape. The scaly gargoyle began to travel North toward Oneda.

Twenty miles from shore, Varan began to engage in battle with the JSDF. Evading an array of shells and ammunition from the sea and from the air, the beast easily pushed through all of the defenses that the military could muster. As night fell, Varan came ashore in Oneda. F86F Saber Jets attacked from above, while 15mm Howitzers and missile launchers attacked from below. Flares were dropped, in an effort to distract the creature as a plan of attack is put into play. The anti-saline charges, which were responsible for Varan's awakening, could potentially aid in his defeat. A truck, filled with the special chemical, was sent out onto the runway of the airport. As Varan approached, the truck's payload was detonated, and the monster absorbed the dangerous chemical. Returning to the sea, the monstrous reptile could take no more. It descended from view into the cold depths of the ocean…

Though the chemical obviously took effect, no one could confirm the creature's demise. One thing was certain, however: if the monster were to ever return, there was finally a weapon powerful enough to defeat him!

The plot itself is so different from the original version, that the drastic differences justify the claim that this is could be considered a different movie altogether. The original plot, which consisted of a scientific investigation to the Kitanami River region and the unintentional reawakening of Varan, was removed. In its place, a clumsily put-together tale about an anti-saline experiment that goes wrong on the fictional Kunishiroshima Island was added. In fact, Varan's approach to Tokyo is replaced with Varan's approach to the fictional city of Oneda, and Haneda Airport becomes Oneda Airport. Varan isn't even referred to by name in this version. He is occasionally called "Obaki", which seems to be the American version's equivalent of "Baradagi". The differences don't stop just at the locations and events, however. Several cast members from the original version only appear in brief stock footage cameos, with their motives and origins completely changed and their usefulness to the plot all but entirely diminished. There is one redeeming value to this, however, and that is the lack of dubbing.

This all wouldn't be so bad if the add-in actors weren't so painfully out-of-place, their motives so tenuous, and their dialogue so terrible. Of all the actors, Myron Healy deserves the most blame. His role was filled with so much Western-style bravado that by today's standards, his performance is absolutely laughable. With his dramatic tone, his slow and deliberate dialogue, his arrogant mannerisms, and of course his "you-never-look-cooler-than-when-you-dramatically-pull-out-a-cigarette" attitude, his character is the epitome of cheese. It also doesn't help that he has to explain the plot through narration, adding a completely unnecessary dimension to an already unnecessary array of edits. Then, of course, there is Tsuruko Kobayashi... whose dialogue and mannerisms ooze with an ethnocentric and sexist subtext. Apparently, it is not her place to: a. give an opinion, b. have an independent thought, or c. get within even a parsec of danger. Then, of course, there is her dialogue, which was obviously written in the screenplay to accentuate broken English. Had writer Sid Harris simply written in the necessary verbs, Kobayashi's performance would not be so groan-worthy. However, one can see that Sid Harris really was bent on accentuating broken English in the Japanese actors, as the style of Derick Shimasu's dialogue is strikingly similar to that of Tsuruko Kobayashi's. Speaking of Derick Shimasu's character, his inclusion in the film is rather mysterious. He seems to only show up at the beginning, and poses no true necessity to the plot. He doesn't even act as comic relief. As time goes by, his character completely disappears, leaving one wondering: what happened to him? Clifford Kawada is the final add-in actor in this film, and luckily he almost saves the acting... almost. Unfortunately, he's not given much to work with, and the audience learns very little about him. Quite simply, his job is to translate the lines of the Japanese actors in the stock footage from the original film. Other than that, he is given so little development that it is shocking to realize that basically, he is one of the three main characters! We do learn only one minor thing about Kawada's character, and it is very odd: he seems to support the suppression of the freedom of the press in his native country. Apparently, the government should put restrictions on news stories like those which depicted Healy's character as "The Tyrant of Kunishiroshima". It's just a little odd to have him bring this up, but one can guess that it does show some tacit comradery between his character and that of Myron Healy's. Despite it all, the dialogue that Kawada is given isn't nearly as corny as that given to his fellow actors.

Special effects-wise, this movie is far from terrible. The effects are mostly taken from the original footage, save perhaps the stiff prop of the giant claw used in the cave scene. The scenes chosen are actually some of the better and more realistic selections from the original version of the film. There is little to no emphasis on Varan's floppy, rubbery carapace at all, for example. However, one can declare that the American filmmakers went too far when Varan's flight scene was, unfortunately, deleted. In the Japanese version, Varan reveals his "flying-squirrel" flaps and seems to fly by means of a modified glide. Though it was a fun scene, the realism factor did lack. Despite it all, this is one of the abilities that makes Varan so interesting, and its exclusion is disheartening to those who just want to see the creature fly. The mysterious winds that accompany Varan's presence are also diminished to only a brief shot in this version of the film. His roar is also completely changed from a Rodan-esque roar to what sounds like tires skidding on pavement. This is yet another change that is definitely not for the better. Overall, the special effects are decent. There is nothing that really stands out.

The music in this film is, in a word, average. The transitions are terrible, as several times there aren't even fade-outs, just sudden halts in the score. As far as the music itself is concerned, there are no real lapses, but there are no real successes either. There are some particularly groan-worthy moments when the music tries to match a traditional Japanese quality when accompanying a Japanese character. In the end, it just screams "stereotype!" When one watches the Japanese version of the film and realizes just how many of Akira Ifukube's brilliant pieces were cut, it chalks up one more disappointment for the American version. Varan's native theme, a very eerie piece that is easily one of Ifukube's best (and a section of which would be ultimately be altered into Rodan's theme), is almost completely missing. Only a brief section of the theme is heard early on, a hint at the excellent score that could have been. Another brilliant piece, which accompanied the military offensive in the Japanese version (and would later be used in subsequent kaiju movies), was also cut. Sadly, such a teeny tiny amount of Ifukube's score remains in the American version. In the Japanese version, it was one of the film's only redeeming factors, and the lack thereof in this version brings the movie down a notch.

Finally, the editing in this film is not very skillful at all, and scenes are shuffled about and rearranged in a manner that is not only confusing and seems to lack a sense of chronology, but also creates spontaneous and jittery cuts. This not only permeates the stock footage from the original version, but also permeates into the American footage as well! It really detracts from the professionalism of the movie, and can be quite a distraction to the viewer.

In the end, Varan, the Unbelievable is a failure in the kaiju genre. While the original version at least had some excellent pros, the American version is simply filled to the brim with cons. In fact, those who happen to pick up a copy of the American version will likely be paying close attention to the timer on their VCR, because one hour and eight minutes of this movie feels like watching grass grow. Do yourself a favor: if you haven't seen the American version, don't! You won't be missing anything, and your opinion of the movie will be much greater if you simply watch the original Japanese version.