Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
To start with, the good news is that the movie on this DVD from Media Blaster's Tokyo Shock
label is technically Daikaiju Baran and not Varan the Unbelievable, a name which
really belongs to the much better known cut-down, Americanized 1962 version of the film. As with
The Mysterians and
Matango: Attack of the Mushroom
People, the movie on this disc is the uncut original version, in Japanese and subtitled
Although the movie shows that Toho was apparently already running out of ideas for giant monster
movies just four years after Gojira, Varan the Unbelievable is what Kaiju-ologists
(a not-so-rare breed) call, "an interesting subject for discussion."
Two butterfly hunters die while collecting specimens around an unmapped lake in the
wilds of northern Japan, and are followed by two more scientist and the sister of one of the
victims. They override the superstitions of the natives and find out that the local 'water
demon' is really a living giant dinosaur. The army moves in but cannot stop it, and the monster
destroys the native village and moves on. The navy and the air force cannot kill it at sea, and
even a new explosive doesn't faze it when it surfaces at Haneda airport ... until the defenders
observe the monster snapping up the parachute-borne flares dropped from above.
Daikaiju Baran is an odd Toho kaiju in that it lacks what every previous giant monster
film after Gojira had - an instant interest factor. Rodan was in color and had the
novelty of a monster that flew through the air at supersonic speed. Godzilla Raids Again was an
immediate sequel that didn't find a distributor; it was eventually snapped up by Warners and
released in 1959. But because the consortium that imported the original
Godzilla controlled that name, it had to be retitledGigantis, the Fire Monster.
After Baran, Toho would take a break from big monsters to investigate outer space and
create more topical horrors like radioactive melting men and nuclear warfare. When Godzilla
returned in 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla, the kaiju genre had mutated to
a more juvenile and fanciful form.
The original Baran on this disc is as generic a giant monster movie as one could invent. The
live action sequences in between the monster attacks are mostly colorless and inconsequential. After
a drawn-out opening setup in an Ainu village
in which characters are forever running out into the jungle to rescue dogs, kids and a woman with
her leg caught under a tree trunk, Baran is all monster action with only a minimum of
dramatics to keep it afloat. There's almost no human dimension to the repetive series of monster
attacks and retaliations with jets, cannons, rockets and other useless weaponry. We're really waiting
for Toho to put out a movie like this that lets the army just stand down, once it's established that
their puny guns do little but anger the monster.
Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies openly wondered if Toho had made the
movie so generic on purpose to better enable it to be sold as 'stock footage' for foreign producers
to construct their own plot with new actors, as Terry Morse had done to great profit on Godzilla.
Stuart Galbraith IV confirmed that Daikaiju Baran was initiated as a coproduction with ABC
television, a deal that fell apart. Was this possibly related to the infamous AB-PT deal that produced
Beginning of the End and
The Unearthly? The
timing is right. Galbraith confirmed that the film had begun filming intended for flat TV use, so a lot
of footage had to be converted to Tohoscope when the decision went the other way. In one scene of
the monster razing the Ainu village, the screen fills with dust and effects whiz Eiji Tsuburaya
apparently used a piece of glass to keep the dust off his camera. The glass reflects a lens turret
showing three round lenses. None appear to have an anamorphic adaptor on
them, confirming that part of Galbraith's story.
With a generic plot, Daikaiju Baran also has a rather generic monster. Like Anguiras
from Godzilla Raids Again, Baran/Varan walks mostly on all fours and has a carpet-like back
plate. He's not too convincing in the anatomy department, as his normal gait has him crawling on
his knees. A rubbery row of white spikes runs down his back and his rather goofy face looks a bit
like one of the later, "funny" versions of Godzilla. Either that, or a kaiju version of a
Hanna-Barbera cartoon character. When he stands upright Baran looks too much like a man in a suit.
For the flying sequence, a different suit appears to be used, with a membrane web between its arms
and legs that makes Varan look a bit like Rocky the Flying Squirrel minus a bushy tail. It's only
slightly more effective than the flying dragon in
On the other hand, Daikaiju Baran has plenty of excellent miniature effects work. This would be
the last major Toho monster in B&W, and the misty gray forests and inky nighttime landscapes are a
refinement of the look of the original Gojira. Tsuburaya seems to have kept working with his
original crew, who produce some excellent miniatures and vehicles for him to photograph in deep-focus
The film also has an impressive Akira Ifukube score that rumbles and grumbles appropriately when
the monster shows up. Ifukube's recurring 'naval armada' music gets a heavy workout when planes and
ships attack Varan in the sea lanes.
There is a lot of monster action here, so much that it eventually becomes repetitive. The film is
padded with stock shots of jets from The Mysterians and cannons from Gojira, adapted
from the 1:37 ratio. We can see that the original shots from Gojira were already scratched
by the time Baran was produced.
When we kids saw Crown International's Varan the Unbelievable in 1962, on the bottom
half of a double bill with
First Spaceship on Venus,
we had no idea it was a Japanese
movie as it starred the vaguely familiar American actor Myron Healy and had plenty of footage
filmed in English. At only 70 minutes it made a perfect second feature for a kiddie
monster matinee: a big rubber monster, lots of explosions and no gory or adult content to
generate irate phone calls from parents.
Crown's version is about Healy's American naval scientist Commander Bradley doing water studies
on a Japanese lake, and disturbing the monster Varan from his hiding place. He, his
assistant/girlfriend Anna (Tsuruko Kobayashi) and a Japanese Captain Kishi (Clifford Kawada) do
a lot of talking and arguing around their jeeps and in a tent. This version was
"produced and directed" by Jerry Baerwitz and the cameraman for the new scenes was Jacques
Marquette, a familiar low-budget jack-of-all-trades.
It's often mentioned that the film was too dark, but I remember the print I saw looking hazy and
gray in the daytime scenes. Editorially, the recut telescoped two Varan attacks into one, dropping
the immediate full reveal of the monster in favor of several shots obscured through smoke and trees
to give Varan a more dramatic first introduction. The recut has a lot less monster footage. Besides
skipping the flying footage, Varan's final battle is not even used. In the Japanese cut (the version
on this disc), he comes out of the water at Haneda and is not harmed by a truck full of explosives.
There follow ten more minutes of destruction until Varan is mortally wounded by a bomb dropped by
parachute, which he eats. Then he crawls back into the water, to either die or wait for a sequel
that never happened.
In the American cut, the attempt with the truck is successful. As soon as he's hit, he crawls back
into the water to die.
Most accounts figure that the American version of Varan was shot in 1962, near to its date of
release. If the ABC deal fell through, it's just as possible that the American footage was filmed
much closer to the original 1958 production date. Outfits like American-International and Crown
International were known for snapping up independent pictures (like
The Angry Red Planet) that
couldn't find a distributor on producer-favorable terms. Varan could have sat on the shelf in
some partially-completed state before Crown stepped into the picture.
Media Blasters' DVD of Varan the Unbelievable is just as polished a presentation as their
previous two Toho offerings. The sole original contributor in the extras is the rubber monster maker
Keizo Murase, who speaks in a long-winded commentary. He also goes slowly through the mold-making
process in a television show about his work that appears to be some kind of career class in
monster-making for an extinct film genre.
There is also a second version of the movie, not the desired American reworking, but a shorter
Japanese television version broken into two parts. Oddly enough, it's still letterboxed.
Media Blasters has one very special title coming up with its present Toho deal, the oddball
Dogora from the middle 1960s. It combines spies and jewel thieves with an interplanetary
amoeba-jellyfish that likes to steal carbon: Diamonds from safes and millions of tons of coal
that it vacuums up into the air in surreal windspouts. It's quite a unique spectacle. Readers
have inquired about other non-aligned Toho titles, and asked after the rare 1955 horror film that
was released here (with John Carradine added in) as Half-Human. Stuart has explained what
he knows about that one as well - the reportedly fascinating original film may be lost, abandoned
over a charge that it was disrespectful to indigenous Japanese natives of the kind shown in
Hopefully the popularity of these titles will encourage DVD releases from American companies holding
distribution rights to Toho pictures. With the MGM acquisition, Sony has remastered film materials for
Atragon, The H-Man, Battle in Outer Space and Mothra. The last title has
been restored in its uncut, un-dubbed original version.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Varan the Unbelievable rates:
Movie: Good -
Supplements: Commentary and video lecture by Keizo Murase, Creature Sculptor; restored
television broadcast Version.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 19, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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