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 earlier The Mysterians and Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, the movie on this disc is the uncut original version, in Japanese and subtitled in English.
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."
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 Reptilicus.
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 slow motion.
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 Varan.
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: