Varan the Unbelievable (1958)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

See also:

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Godzilla (1954)

Godzilla (1998)

Godzilla (1984)

Godzilla vs Biollante (1989)

Godzilla vs Gigan

Godzilla 2000: Millennium

Godzilla vs Hedora

Godzilla vs King Ghidrah

Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla (1974)

Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1993)

Godzilla vs Monster Zero

Godzilla vs Mothra (1964)

Godzilla vs Mothra (1992)

Godzilla vs the Sea Monster (1966)

Godzilla's Revenge

King Kong vs. Godzilla

Rebirth of Mothra (Guest Review)

Rodan (1956)

Son of Godzilla (1967)

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

War of the Gargantuas

Godzilla Raids Again

Varan the Unbelievable
aka Giant Monster Baran

Lava LampLava Lamp

Our rating: two LAVA® motion lamps.

A nice sauna hits the spot
after destroying a village.
Want to know what’s really unbelievable? That this black and white disappointment was made by Toho four years after the groundbreaking Godzilla (1954), and two years after the visually spectacular Rodan (1956). It’s a real step backwards for the Japanese monster movie.

The movie attempts to grab the viewer right off the bat with a fascinating treatise on collecting Lepidoptera. A particular butterfly has been found in a remote part of Japan where they are not native. Two scientists from a university travel to the region to investigate the butterflies, but both men are killed mysteriously. The butterflies are forgotten (it is never really explained why they were unusual), and a new group of scientists, led by Kenji (Kozo Nomura) and Horiguchi (Fumito Matsuo), set out to the region to find out what happened to the previous two. This new group also includes Yuriko (Ayumi Sonoda), the sister of one of the men who died. Yuriko funds the expedition through the film studio for which she works, the “20th Century Mysteries Solved” studio. That sounds like a film company with an awfully specific agenda, but it serves the needs of the script and provides the picture with its quota of damsel in distress.

Is there anything that wouldn't
make Baradagi angry?
The trio arrives just in time to interrupt a worship service held by the area’s natives. The villagers (dominated by the requisite elderly high priest who recurs in most such jungle-monster movies) explain that the local god Baradagi killed the two men, a claim that doesn’t sit well with our heroes. Their disbelief is soon quashed when a giant lizard surfaces from the nearby lake. Baradagi really doesn’t like visitors. The monster is so upset by the arrival of tourists that, otherwise unprovoked, he rewards his supplicants with the destruction of their village and the death of the high priest. The visitors, of course, escape with nary a scratch.

Shocked to discover the existence of a dinosaur in Japan’s backyard, Kenji and Horiguchi ruminate on the creature’s origins. Though they apparently “can’t believe something like this exists today,” the scientists do note that the area was “once the prehistoric place where the Varan species existed.” This suggests that paleontologists have been to the region before and excavated the remains of other Varan creatures without invoking the wrath of the modern-day specimen or encountering the villagers, but of course no further mention is made of the fact.

Hokey smokes!
An emergency meeting is called by the Japanese Defense Force (JDF), the officers of which readily accept a story about a giant carnivorous lizard who lives in a lake. Though these officers give some lip service to the idea of a mission to “assess the risk” that Varan might cause more destruction, the fact that they arrive with a few dozen tanks and missile-launching trucks belies their actual intent. So what if Varan has laid low, presumably for hundreds of years -– it’s monster-huntin’ time!

Horiguchi rallies the members of the press (so much for an exclusive story for “20th Century Mysteries Solved”) while the JDF troops fire bazookas into the lake. Varan survives the attack, including an eerily familiar strategy in which the JDF employs “light bombs” to lure the monster into position. Varan makes its escape, however, by gliding away on membranes stretched between its legs and by making noises curiously similar to that of a jet plane in flight. Varan makes it to the ocean and then swims directly for . . . Tokyo, of course.

It's just Marlon Brando, calm down.
As Varan waits in the Tokyo harbor for a chance to strike, various military and scientific authorities discuss exactly what caliber of shell will penetrate Varan’s hide. Perhaps this is a situation where erring on the side of caution would be a good idea. The authorities also prepare bombs made of a super-powerful gunpowder. While Varan’s skin repels all manner of artillery, the eldest scientist present observes that Varan has a penchant for eating flares that parachute from above. Super-gunpowder bombs suspended from such flares are dropped on Varan, he eats a couple, and before you can say “Taco Bell” the monster retreats into the harbor with the worst case of gas ever recorded. The film ends there, leaving a rather smug bunch of scientists and military-types gazing into the ocean.

Varan the Unbelievable covers very little new ground. It is essentially a remake of Godzilla with some elements of Rodan thrown in. Human drama is almost completely absent, despite a few half-hearted attempts to throw Kenji and Yuriko together in a cave that recalls similar scenes from King Kong. After Varan flies away from his home, however, Kenji and company have nothing else to do, except in one belabored scene in which our hero rigs a truck to explode. The monster has kind of a scrawny appearance and the effects are cut-rate, especially when compared to the lavish Rodan. Further drawing unfavorable comparisons between this film and its predecessors is the presence of Akihiko Hirata, whose “bomb expert” character in this picture is a pretty limp noodle when compared to the tortured Dr. Serizawa from the original Godzilla.

"They actually gave Overdrawn
at the Memory Bank
a good review!"
The lack of ambition in the creation of Varan is somewhat understandable in the context of the project’s history. It was conceived and even started filming as a TV movie that was to be sold to an American television network. The American company pulled out, and Toho finished the film as a domestic theatrical release. It is a testament to the popularity of monster movies at time that a picture with such modest ambitions was released at all, but film studios around the world and for all the history of cinema have cultivated the habit of throwing good money after bad.

When the film was released in the U.S. four years later it was given the Godzilla, King of the Monsters treatment, with new scenes placed among the original footage. Hollywood Western staple Myron Healey was cast as an American military officer who works with the Japanese military to study ways of purifying salt water. The group’s experiments in the remote lake wake the monster, causing the rampage. The scene where Varan takes flight was cut from the American version of Varan the Unbelievable, ironically making Varan more believable.

Review date: 06/23/2004

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