If you ever wondered how foreign monster movies were marketed to America back in the days of the 50’s and 60’s, you’d need look no further at the stunning hatchet job performed on Ishiro Honda’s Giant Monster Varan. You see back then, expecting american kids to plonk themselves in a cinema and watch a movie with an all Japanese cast while making them read subtitles was unheard of, so to turn a buck an independent studio would buy the rights and then butcher the living shit out of it. Mercilessly slicing out whole plot points and even entire characters and replacing them with American actors who painfully explain the plot inbetween the monster bits, the finished product rarely resembles the original movie at all apart from the building punching bits.
Why am I bringing all this up? Because the massacred version of Varan is the only version I could get my grubby little mitts on which confidently renders Varan The Unbelievable into Varan The Unremarkable…
Depending on which version you watch the plot is as follows: originally following an expedition trying to locate a rare butterfly who fall foul of the ancient creature that lives in a local lake; the americanised version sees us spend an inordinate amount of time with self important United States Navy Commander Jim Bradley who spends his days waffling on about his experiments in Japan to test a new chemical that’s supposed to desalinate the water in the local lake. Obviously the natives aren’t happy about this but Jim simply shrugs his shoulders and spouts some bullcrap about pissing around in someone else’s water supply is worth it if they are successful. If.
Eventually, afterva few failed experiments, Jim is stunned to find out that the native legends involving a creature living in the lake prove to be bang on the money and we’re soon introduced to Varan, a giant, spikey lizard-thing who in the Japanses version has the nifty/ludicrous ability to glide out of harms way thanks to the flying squirrel style membranes in it’s arm pits which nay a far more dignified flying method than what Godzilla had in Godzilla Vs. Hedorah – but still. Inevitably the military is called in to subdue the leaping lizard but are unable to slow his titanic-sized roll and the usual amounts of property damaged is racked up with reckless abandon.
Can Jim and his tiny entourage possibly manage to end the threat of Varan without ever leaving the same area of land they spend the whole film occupying – or will they just leave it up to the orginal edit’s heroes and just claim the glory? Tsk, unbelievable….
The differences between the original version mainly directed by Godzilla creator Ishiro Honda and the american version pieced together by Jerry A. Baerwitz simply couldn’t be more different if they tried and amusingly even seem to have two completely opposing messages with Honda’s being one far more attuned with a more spiritual nature as Varan is enraged by the outsiders decrying the warnings of the local priest as the new, scientific world collides with the more traditional religious and superstitious ways of thinking. In comparison the American movie just claims that Varan’s pissed because some apologetic white guy dumped some scientific shit in his home and decides to take it out on the surrounding area and while both messages have merit, the USA version typically has it’s heroes only begrudgingly admit “my bad” long after all the damage has already been done.
Admittedly, at the time of writing, I’ve yet to see Honda’s unedited version but I have it on good authority that it’s not exactly the director’s best work – especially when compared to his other epics such as Godzilla, Mothra and War Of The Gargantuas. However, it’s blatantly got to be significantly better than the horribly disjointed tosh that the movie was re-edited into.
Losing an impressive twenty minutes to studio mandated cuts in order to get it to play in front of a Western audience of sugar filled kids in the 1960’s, the added cast contains only three actors who at no point converse with anyone from the original cut face to face and spend the entire movie keeping tabs on Varan’s destructive progress from what looks like the driveway of someone’s house.
Myron Healey’s grafted-in lead especially annoys as he pompously informs the only other two people the film allows him talk to in the whole of Japan, that “No one is to blame for this!” when all three of them blatantly are.
In between him lecturing his minimalist cast on things he’s directly responsible for but yet apparently isn’t his fault, he’s man-splaining the entire plot to us insulting voice over like we’re slack jawed morons which only succeeds in us hating him more.
The only thing which makes this thing even remotely worth watching is predictably the monster stuff where our horny lead (steady now) goes to town… on the town. However, even here the americans have managed to screw this up because remember earlier when I said Varan could fly? Pfft, not in this version, friend – so our “Unbelievable” kaiju actually ends up having less powers than virtually every other giant monster of the time. However, to give the Americans their due, despite some great model work, Varan simply doesn’t have the same pizzazz as some of his city stomping peers and he certainly doesn’t have the presence of Godzilla, the majesty of Mothra or even the tragic nature of Rodan in his first movie – he’s not even a weird, bug-eyed superhero like Gamera – he’s just a big monster who does big monster stuff and thus is somewhat uninspired which probably explains his absence in the orginal Toho monsterverse except force blink and you’ll miss it cameo in 1968’s Destroy All Monsters.
So while neither version is admittedly great, the USA version is a literal hack job that single handedly provides a compelling argument that maybe horrendous, clumsy dubbing isn’t quite that bad as an alternative.
If I ever get the chance to review the original Japanese version I’ll review it as an entirely different movie – primarily because that’s what it technically is, but until then Varan The Unbelievable will stubbornly remain Varan The Unbearable.