In an attempt to find a more economic means of purifying salt water, a joint US-Japanese military unit is set up on an isolated Japanese island where they find the perfect salt lake to test their experiments. However a giant monster lurks at the bottom and their experiments wake the creature, which goes on a destructive rampage.
After the enormous popularity and success of Godzilla in 1954, Toho decided to strike whilst the iron was hot and crank out a number of similarly-themed ‘giant monsters run amok’ movies. Godzilla received a second outing with a sequel, Rodan and Mothra both flew onto the scene and Varan was unearthed. For some reason (apart from the fact that this film isn’t very good), Varan never really hit it off like the others did. Rodan and Mothra both became staple enemies, and later friends, of Godzilla and made countless crossover appearances throughout the years. But Varan was never seen again, save for a token throwaway cameo in Destroy All Monsters in 1968. But the suit was in such poor condition by then that it was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
The version that I was originally reviewing here was the US version which was released four years later than the Japanese one, features a different director who presumably filmed the Americanised scenes, an entirely new musical score and a whole new cast of American actors. Much as what happened with the Raymond Burr bits added to Godzilla, the American version shows signs of being a totally different film to the original vision of Ishiro Honda who helmed the Japanese version. But having seen the Japanese one since my original review, I have to say that although the Americanisation is shoddy, it hardly makes much difference to the overall product. All they did was take a poor film and make it worse. Characters with pivotal roles in the Japanese version have been completely removed from the film and the new American actors given more screen time to ramble on and pad out proceedings. The scenes with Myron Healy seem totally out of place with what is going on as they hardly talk about Varan (the monster is never mentioned by name at all), dragging down the film’s pace dramatically. Despite the fact that new footage was shot for the US release, it still manages to clock in at seventeen minutes shorter! The Japanese version avoids most of these pitfalls but it still doesn’t hide the fact that film is low on budget, low on ideas and low on final product.
The decision to replace Akira Ifukube’s original score has to be the worst decision made though. Whilst the Godzilla series has received its far share of critics over the years for its scripts and production values, it was Ifukube’s outstanding scores which always deserved to be in films of far better quality. Critically acclaimed, Ifukube’s work was rightfully recognised as superb even if the films they were apart of were not up to the mark. He produced another great score here but it was sadly replaced.
You hardly see Varan throughout the film but when you eventually get to see him, he looks like a giant squirrel. In fact he flies in the Japanese version – so a giant flying squirrel. Rightly so, the American version cuts out this scene and keeps him grounded as the effects work in the original cut is so appalling that you can see wires and all sorts hanging down. Varan doesn’t get to do a lot of city-stomping either. After Godzilla and Rodan have laid waste to Tokyo, Varan has to contend with knocking over some small towns in poorly-filmed sequences. Not least there is the fact that Rodan was shot in colour two years earlier – the cost-cutting decision to go back to black-and-white further underlying Toho’s original desire to make this film as low maintenance as possible.
As it turns out, Varan the Unbelievable is a horrid mess no matter which version you get your hands on. The Japanese version is slightly better than the ridiculous Americanised version but both copies of the film would prove why Varan has disappeared from kaiju lore without so much as a whimper. Considering how some of the more popular Toho monsters have never received their own film, the decision to give Varan his own vehicle is mind-boggling.