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Default Varan the Unbelievable




Reviewer: Jeremy
Review Date: February 15, 2006

Released by: Media Blasters
Release date: 5/10/2005
MSRP: $19.95
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes



Most American viewers with only a cursory knowledge of Japanese cinema can still readily identify two very distinctive genres – giant monster movies and Kurosawa-like samurai films. The irony of this is that Japan’s Toho Studios can claim credit for both. Though Akira Kurosawa didn’t invent the samurai genre, he did breathe incredible new life into it and made the films accessible to viewers outside of Japan. The Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Sanjuro and many of his other best known productions were all Toho pictures. On the same note, though Toho didn’t invent the giant monster genre, it is only because of their fifty-plus years of making them that the films have become so famous. Unfortunately, unlike Kurosawa’s productions, the films of Godzilla and his like took a long time to gain any sort of respectability. True, Kurosawa’s films were sometimes treated disrespectfully in the U.S., but at least they were not subjected to the butchery that many Japanese monster films went through, which often meant extensive cuts or having new footage of American actors spliced in. This brings us to Varan the Unbelievable, a film that suffered such a fate. Finally available in its original Japanese cut, does it deserve newfound respect, or were Audiences on this side of the Pacific not missing much of anything special from the start?

The Story

inline ImageWe open in the classroom of Dr. Sugimoto (Koreya Senda), a biologist teaching at a university in Tokyo. The good doctor is telling his students about a species of butterfly that was found in a rural part of Japan by a young boy on summer break. The butterfly is of a type previously only known to exist in Siberia, and its discovery in Japan is surprising. The area it was found in, known informally as the “Tibet of Japan”, is extremely rural, and Sugimoto has sent two researchers there in order to investigate how many more of such butterflies may be there. We then cut to a jeep driving over a bumpy, rural road. The two men it carries are the researchers in question. They reach their destination, the village of Iwaya where the locals give them the cold shoulder when they try and ask questions. They push on and come to an eerie, fog shrouded lake. They discover one of the butterflies, but never live to tell the tale, because they are crushed by a gigantic landside that is preceded by the roars of a gigantic, unseen beast.

inline ImageBack in Tokyo, Dr. Sugimoto is shocked by the news of the two men’s deaths. Reports out of the area indicate that some are blaming the incident on the “Baradagi”, a local god that is supposed to rule over the area. A research party is dispatched to the village. It consists of Sugimoto’s assistant Kenji (Kozo Nomura), female reporter Yurkio (Ayumi Sonoda)) – whose brother was one of the dead researchers – and her assistant Horiguchi (Fumito Matsuo). They reach Iwaya Village where the high priest (Akira Sera) warns them of Baradagi and forbids them to get any nearer to the lake. The three scoff at the villagers, dismissing them as superstitious hicks. When a young village boy runs into the woods by the lake while chasing his dog, the high priest tries to stop the outsiders from going to find him, saying anybody who does will be condemned to death. However, the three are able to convince a number of the villagers to go with them and they approach the shores of the lake. Suddenly, a huge, lizard-like monster – which Kenji identifies as a prehistoric creature called a “Varan” – emerges from the depths and begins to chase them. The locals flee in panic as Varan destroys the village.

inline ImageThe Japanese Army is sent to the area and they surround the lake with tanks, rocket launchers and artillery. Mortar shells loaded with chemicals are launched into the lake in an effort to coax the monster to the surface. Eventually it works, but unfortunately Varan turns out to be impervious to all the weapons that have been brought to fight him. The troops are forced to retreat, and, in a surprising move, Varan spreads a set of wings and flies off. Knowing that the monster poses a major menace to the people of Japan, the government launches a search for the beast, and eventually finds it swimming off the coast. Jet planes and naval vessels are summoned to attack it, but they fail as well. It seems nothing is going to stop the monster from his ultimate destination – Tokyo!

inline ImagePresented here is the original 1958 Japanese version of Varan the Unbelievable, or Daikaijû Baran as it is known in its home country. This marks the first time the original Japanese version has been available on home video in the United States. However, don’t get too excited. Though it is competently put together, it is a thoroughly unexceptional movie nonetheless. Though directed by Ishiro Honda, the same creative genius behind the earlier Godzilla and Rodan, it fails to capture the same feel as those productions. More often than not it feels derivative of them. The real value of having it available is that it replaces the heavily altered 1962 version that was previously available to American audiences on home video. Of special interest to fans – something they have been curious about for years – is the fact that in the Japanese version Varan can fly, yet the footage involving this is inexplicably absent from the American version (inexplicably because the special effect involved is not much worse than any of the others in the movie). This presentation allows us to see Varan fly in all his dubious glory. But don’t get too excited about that, either – Varan flies exactly once, and after that it’s all crawling and swimming from there.

inline ImageIt has long been known that Varan the Unbelievable had a convoluted production and distribution history. It was originally conceived as a co-production between Toho and an American television network (supposedly ABC). When the American backers pulled out midway through production, Toho was left with an unfinished movie that they ended up having to complete and release theatrically. When it finally did reach American shores four years later it was distributed by Crown International, an indie known for releasing impossibly bad movies. While the Japanese version is unexceptional, the American version is exceptionally bad. Reams of footage were cut out. All the main characters became little more than extras, when they were seen at all. Instead, new scenes were shot with B-movie actor Myron Healy and several other performers. The plot was therefore fundamentally altered. The new story involved a salt water lake in rural Japan that was to be the subject for an experimental desalination project, overseen by an American naval officer played by Healy. The tests awaken Varan and he goes on to wreak havoc. For all intents and purposes, the American version is a completely different film – in fact, the Internet Movie Database has separate entries for it and Daikaijû Baran.

inline ImageAs a movie, the Japanese version is lethargic and slow paced. The acting is uninspiring. The characters are almost irrelevant to the story, and characterization is almost non-existent, which is what probably made it so easy for the American distributors to virtually remove all of the original cast. However, the movie does have some virtues. From a technical standpoint it shows considerable refinement. The design of the Varan suit is uninspired, but at least the filmmakers aren’t afraid to show it. There is a considerable amount of spectacle on display. In fact, from the time when the military first engages Varan to the climax at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport the action is almost non-stop. The special effects and miniature work is first-rate, as is the editing and cinematography. Akira Ifukube’s score – which is virtually absent from the American cut – is also effective, invoking action, mystery and suspense as needed. Japanese monster fans who have never seen the original cut of the film before will probably experience considerable déjà vu, as Ifukube reworked much of his score for later Toho monster films.

inline ImageIt’s also difficult to take Varan very seriously as a menace. There is nothing particularly menacing about him other than his size. He’s just a big lizard. In contrast, Godzilla – especially during this time period before he morphed into a good guy – was an extremely ominous and menacing beast with a screen presence that Varan simply can’t emulate. It also doesn’t help that Varan is always attacked or disturbed by humans first. By the logic of the film, he has been living in the remote lake for thousands, if not millions of years, and apparently has always been more than happy to just be left alone. The local villagers knew better than to disturb him. He only killed the two researchers because they entered into his domain. He only destroyed the village because its residents made the same mistake. And presumably, the only reason that he left the area to attack the rest of Japan was because the military showed up at the lake to destroy him. It’s a pity that Varan isn’t handled more sympathetically, otherwise the movie would probably have become an early pro-ecological statement.

Despite the all the action and destruction that is on display, it is still rather clear why Varan the Unbelievable is so uninteresting. Even in 1958, the film broke no new ground. By that time Japanese audiences had not only already been introduced to Godzilla, but also to Rodan and Angurus, two monsters that would go on to play major supporting roles in later films. Varan was nothing special, and the movie that he appears in is nothing special, either.

Image Quality

inline Image Varan the Unbelievable is presented in its original 2.35:1 Tohoscope aspect ratio, and is enhanced for 16x9 displays. Overall this is an impressive presentation. As the supplements and audio on this release appear to be ported over from Toho’s domestic Region 2 release, presumably this is also the same transfer that graced that disc. The source materials appear to have either been in spectacular shape or undergone extensive cleanup, because as hard I looked there just wasn’t any sort of print damage to be seen. No vertical lines, no specks, no scratches, no blemishes. Even the stock footage looks abnormally good.

Now, there are still some problems with the transfer. The image is reasonably clear and detailed, but the majority of the film has a slightly soft, out of focus look to it. The contrast could have been better, and black levels veer a little too much towards gray. Still, it’s impossible to deny that this is unquestionably a superior presentation of the film.

Sound

inline ImageThree audio options are available – a 5.1 Surround Track, a 3.0 Surround track and a 2.0 Mono track. Strangely enough, this time around it’s the Mono track which is the best listen. Sure it’s a little shrill, but at the same time it is well balanced and is lacking any sort of appreciable distortion or background noise. The 3.0 track, in contrast, is recorded at a lower volume and is more poorly balanced, with sound effects too loud and dialogue far too quiet. The 5.1 Surround track is simply overkill. Action or not, there’s no real reason that a movie of this vintage needs a 5.1 remix, and the poor design of this particular track is what makes the original Mono mix more preferable.

Optional English subtitles are included. They are large and easy to read, though there are a few spelling goofs and a number of punctuation errors.

Supplemental Material

inline ImageThe first extra is a running commentary track with sculptor Keizo Murase, who worked at Toho for over seven years and spent a significant amount of time building monsters and working on effects for the studio’s various fantasy pictures. Varan the Unbelievable seems to hold a special place in his heart, as it was the first film that he worked on from beginning to end. The commentary covers Murase’s early career as an underpaid Toho employee, and then divides up the remaining time talking about Varan and his other monsters. This commentary will be of particular interest to those who have a fascination with pre-CGI special effects. Murase is prompted by a moderator who remains unnamed, and both speak in Japanese. Optional English subtitles are available to translate it, though they contain a number of noticeable spelling and grammatical errors. It is unfortunately a bit dense and difficult to sit through at times.

The next extra is advertised as a “Lecture with Keizo Murase”. Apparently designed for high school art students, it is nonetheless an extremely informative and interesting supplement for all viewers. It is one thing to hear Murase talk about how he built monsters on a commentary track, but it is quite another to actually see him at work. Filmed at his workshop, Murase, his apprentice and various other helpers all demonstrate how Varan was actually made. Murase goes over the process of sculpting the skin, making plaster molds of it and then making it into a latex shape viable for a monster suit. He also demonstrates how he created the spikes on Varan’s back. Though building the suit could not possibly been easy, Murase’s clear way of explaining things and visual aids make it look like less of a daunting process than one might think. The feature runs a little bit shy of thirty minutes and is in Japanese with optional English subtitles.


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The last big extra is advertised as the “Restored Television Broadcast Version”. Broken up into two episodes, and running just fifty-two minutes, this is a highly edited version. Everything prior to the military’s arrival at the lake is handled in just a few minutes of screen time, and then everything between that battle and Varan’s arrival at Haneda Airport is basically cut out. There are some snippets of footage and dialogue that don’t seem to be present in the theatrical version, and there are some different music cues. There’s also a bunch of visual drop-outs in which the soundtrack continues but the screen goes black. The footage is missing, so evidently this version can’t be that restored. It is however presented letterboxed at 2.35:1 with 16x9 enhancement, and other than looking a little beat up it is otherwise quite similar in quality to the full feature. The Japanese audio is accompanied by removable English subtitles.

This release is rounded out by two original Japanese trailers for the film, as well as trailers for One Missed Call, Sky High, The Mysterians and Matango, all of which are other Japanese films available from Media Blasters.

Final Thoughts

While preparing this review it occurred to me that, no matter what form I view it in, watching Varan the Unbelievable is a bloody pain. As a young man watching the American version on VHS was a chore. Watching the original Japanese cut repeatedly was a chore. Watching it with the audio commentary was a chore. Even watching the shortened TV version was a chore. This should not however detract from the legitimate praise this release deserves. Toho should be applauded for giving a minor film in their catalog a nice transfer and set of extras, and Media Blasters should be equally applauded for going the extra mile and making this material available to English-speaking audiences. Good work fellas – just remember to proofread those subtitle tracks a little better next time!

Rating

Movie – C
Image Quality – B+
Sound – B
Supplements – B

Technical Info.
  • Running Time – 1 hour 27 minutes
  • B&W
  • Not rated
  • 1 Disc
  • Chapter Stops
  • Japanese 2.0 Mono
  • Japanese 3.0 Surround
  • Japanese 5.1 Surround
  • English subtitles

Supplements
  • Audio commentary with Keizo Murase
  • Lecture with Keizo Murase
  • TV broadcast version
  • Trailers

 

 

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