Varan the Unbelievable (1962)

I can imagine him going, "Helloooo!" in full-throated, barbershop quartet mode. If only there were three more, we could have a hell of a harmony going.
I can imagine him going, "Helloooo!" with the full-throated thrill of a man trying to start up a barbershop quartet.

Ishiro Honda directed three films in 1958. One is justly famous in international horror circles, one is rare but infamous among daikaiju fans, and one is a “human interest” drama called Song of the Bride. Good luck trying to find out anything about that. As the decade of atomic power gave way to the Space Age, the director who began his career with two “human interest” documentaries (no really: The Story of a Co-op kicks ass if you can find it…not that you asked) saw himself enthroned as King of the Special Effects Picture in general…and monster movies in particular. Having learned their lesson from Godzilla Raids Again, Toho dared not let anyone else touch their newest, fattest cash cow of a sub-genre. They needed a monster movie for 1958. Too bad they had to give us this.

Except that’s not accurate, since the Japanese version of this flickĀ  is remarkably different from the version I watched as a child; the one I’m picking apart, in public, tonight…and all for your entertainment, you sick bastards. Why must I suffer?

Because Daiakaiju Baran got picked up by the Crown International, who cut all of the human characters out of the film and replaced them with new scenes directed by Jerry A. Baerwitz. Don’t feel bad for not knowing Jerry’s name. He cut his teeth assistant directing almost thirty episodes of Rory Calhoun’s TV show, The Texan, before going on to direct his only other title in the IMDb…something called Wild Harvest. Good luck finding out about that either, but from what little I can find I suspect it’s an early sexploitation flick, examining the “grim” and “gritty” lives of female migrant workers in California’s Mesa Vineyards. But since it’s a Crown International release from the early 1960s, written by Sid Harris, I imagine a lot more attention’s paid to…let’s just call them “the feminine aspects” of those female migrant workers…

"Winston tastes good like (flick, flick) imperialism should."
"...tastes good like (flick, flick) imperialism should."

Whatever the case, after putting Varan to bed, Baerwitz seems to have thrown up his hands, said “Fuck it,” and spent the rest of his career as a producer or a production manager on a number of films…including Fright Night, of all things. But never mind that now. He did a crappy job Frankensteining anglos into a Toho monster movie. His character scenes are so static and rigid they could come from a later day George Lucus. His attempts to link the two films with a narrative are far and few between, and the most creative transition he can come up with is switching the vertical wipes from right-to-left to left-to-right.

Not that he had much to work with in the first place. Daikaiju Baran is nothing if not a cheap rehash of ideas, themes, and even footage from the original Godzilla. All Baerwitz really did was lay a contemporary American monster movie on top of Honda’s Japanese one, and it’s real obvious. Compare the job Terry O. Morse did on Gojira. Not only did he leave the main cast alone (more or less) he even dubbed some of their lines…with half-decent actors! And he went to all the trouble of casting body doubles and shooting scenes to make it look like Raymond Burr was actually talking to the main cast. All this in 1956!

No such luck here, six years later. After a montage of footage blatantly stolen from Gojira‘s dailies, we meet Our Hero in the form of Commander James Bradley, played by Myron Healey – also a Texan veteran, fresh off guest-starring roles in Maverick, Gunsmoke, and Rawhide – the Holy Trinity of late-50s American Western TV. He acts like it too, and I don’t mean that as an insult. In a strange way, Healey’s casual, tough-guy persona is perfect for his role as unintentional antagonist, tragic villain, and all-around poster boy for imperialist occupations past and present. Too bad Healey’s supposed to be playing the Hero of Our Story.

Bradley commands a joint U.S.-Japanese military post on the fictional island of Kunishiro Shima. Bradley describes the island as “bleak, rugged and lonely,” despite the fact its full of people. Indeed, that’s Bradley’s whole problem right there. You really do have to feel for him. The U.S. Navy goes to all the trouble of inventing a new, chemical method of desalinizing salt water and these uppity natives just refuse to give up their local salt water lake to Science. Sure, their entire way of life depends on the lake and its fish, all of whom will surely be contaminated after the experiment concludes. But as Bradley tells his wife/secretary Anna (Tsuruko Kobayashi), “The Japanese government will take good care of them.”

"'Take care' of them?"
"'Take 'good' care of 'em?'"

No, clearly not. Bradley continues: “Should we be this concerned about a hand full of people when we might perfect something that’ll benefit all mankind?” Here we see the principal difference between American and Japanese daikaiju pictures of this era. No working class hero for this monster movie. No, Our Hero must have shinny shoes, smoke unfiltered cigarettes, and deliver terse voice-overs meant to be entries into his duty log.

"No, you see...there's a curse on me. I change into a WOLF!"
"No, you see...there's a curse on me. I change into a WOLF!"

Varan is basically an hour of listening to said log. Believe me, I’ve spared you a lot of patented Myron Healey Monologuing. Through it, we learn the natives are conducting nightly ceremonies to placate their heathen god, Obake, a legendary monster said to live at the bottom of their lake. Ancient prophecy indicates that, should Bradley carry out his experiment, Obake will be disturbed, rise from the lake, and destroy the world. Not that Bradley believes in such superstitions: he dismisses the whole thing as a native psyops project. Especially after an islander in a mask and grass skirt accosts him while he’s out walking in the middle of the night.

The next day, Bradley talks to his JDSF counterpart, Captain Kishi (Clifford Kawada), neglecting to mention his nocturnal visitor (who’ll have nothing to do with anything else in the movie). Kishi suggests calling up more troops to force the natives out of their village. The Tokyo papers catch wind of it, but who cares about the forced removal of a few hundred (thousand?) innocent people by an invading army? Stories of Obake, on the other hand, capture the press’ imagination…our first sign that this takes place in the tenuous nexus of parallel dimensions that house Godzilla’s Showa series.

(My God, could this be…subversive? Will Our stalwart Hero learn the consequences of Tampering in God’s Domain? Nope. He’ll just go off to do it somewhere else. Somewhere…in America.)

Sir and Madame Not Appearing (Much) in This Film observe things from minimum safe distance.
Sir and Madame Not Appearing (Much) in This Film observe things from minimum safe distance.

At this point, instead of meeting new characters, we hear Bradley describe them to us: a Reporter and his Reporter Chick. Was that the main cast of Daikaiju Baran I just saw, getting off that bus? It was? Well stone the crows, I never would’ve guessed. Bradly sums up my feeling when he grabs Anna up in a Manly Embrace and says, “No, there’s a difference, I can tell.”

At which this point the theremin music beings (!) and Anna declares her undying love for her May-on: “There is something more important to me…you!” Maybe it’s all the slick, hip, Silver Age superhero movies I’ve been watching, but I really needed this kind of cheesy, early ’60s dialogue. Anna’s concerned about all the people talking shit about her husband in print. “They say bad things about you. That you’re a tyrant who drives people from their homes.” Hate to be the one to tell you, dear, (actually, I don’t; no) but those things are true.

“You know how stories get twisted,” Bradley says. “How people gossip.” Except there’s no twisting here. No gossip. “They” are just reporting your stated goal. You want to drive these people out of their homes so you can poison their lake for the “benefit of all mankind.” Apart from condescending to your wife or the little proto-Kenny hanging around your house, the forced-removal is literally all you’ve talking about for the past fifteen minutes! Ass.

The next day, Bradley continues offering flimsy justifications to Captain Kishi, “The press reports the facts; the public distorts them. The public and the army command…They send us tanks, bazookas, full battle equipment…ostensibly to protect [the natives] against some prehistoric animal lying at the bottom of the lake.” Almost as if this takes place in a universe where giant monsters worshiped by native tribes for untold centuries regularly rise from lakes and attack cities. Nice little hints of (unintentional? certainly) continuity like that attempt to balance out Varan‘s ambient cheese factor…because only in a world beset by giant monsters would the JDSF even bother to use “we’ve got to protect people from Obake” as their cover.

If you find yourself getting dumber during this film, blaime Commander Bradley and his love of brains. "Brains!"
If you find yourself getting dumber during the course of this film, blame Commander Bradley and his love of brains. "Brains!"

Credit where it’s due: Bradley actually comes up with a nice little plan, all things considered. Since the villagers refuse to leave he orders half of Kishi’s men to block the lake off and puts the other half on food detail, intending to supplement the villager’s diet with Army rations. But Commander Douche still fires off his chemicals into the lake and, like a good workaholic, sets up camp in the forest to take samples, and do other things related to Science!

That night, Obake lurches onto the surface world like we all knew he would. One unfortunate Gray Shirt is so horrified by the sight he keels over dead, allowing Bradley to say, “It looks like he died of fright.” Funny how neither Bradley nor Kishi notice the giant frickkin’ path Obake made through the forest. I know the loss of any soldier is a terrible blow to any commanding officer with a conscience…but you and Kishi might want to pay a bit more attention to the giant frickkin’ monster you just woke up with all your Tampering in God’s Domain. Except this film’s so cheap Obake’s “path of destruction” amounts to a few scattered limbs that, all clumped together, would hardly amount to a brush pile. I could burn that thing with one can of used oil. Wouldn’t even need paint thinner.

"If only I could've done...something to prevent all this..."
"If only I could've done...something to prevent all this..."

It’s not just that Bradley, Anna and Kishi are dime novel cliches, old as Heart of Darkness (Bradley in particular struck me as an embryonic Colonel Kurtz – imperialist goes native, wakes up monster – except the monstrosity’s displaced, manifesting as a physical being in the best speculative fiction traditions) – they’re the story’s actual antagonists. It’s the King Kong problem all over again: I’m actively praying for these people’s deaths. These stupid, banal functionaries, these button mashers of the Apocalypse, are directly responsible for all the destruction and death Obake brings down upon them and the village. Bradley even lampshades this, telling his wife, “I have no idea what effect it would have on any life form other than fish.” So was that what this “test” is all about? You didn’t want to go through all the rigamarole involved in testing different kinds of life individually. You just figured, “Fuck it! Drop the damn thing into the lake and see what dies.” Right? In what universe does that qualify as good science? That’s not even Science, with the colored liquids in test tubes, because everything in this world is black and white. Conform! Submit! It’s all the same! Can’t you see, everyone? They’re here already! You’re next!

Errr…sorry. I’ve been told I should try to say something positive about all this. With that in mind…I must say, I love Anna’s incredible short pairs of shorts. They look much better on her than on the many underage boys who infest monster films from the age immediately following this one. But that’s just my libido talking.

At this point, with a monster on the loose, we finally get our fight scene. It goes how you’d expect, and though we’re almost exactly thirty minutes in it feels like I started this film forever ago. I can’t spend two minutes with this film without finding something that feels like a splinter in my mind’s eye. Even the fight scene is marred by Baerwitz’s clumsy insert shots of Bradley and Kishi standing around (at minimum safe distance) looking at the fight through binoculars.

"Goddamnit, people, I just woke up...arrgh! That does it. Varan smash!"
"Goddamnit, people, I just woke up...arrgh! That does it. Varan smash!"

At least the monster scenes are vintage Ishiro Honda, and the man’s no slouch in the Military Porn or Ideas Departments. There’s a particularly haunting scene where a lone soldier on a canyon rim confronts Obake with a rifle as the monster strides by. The soldier backs up, firing ineffectually…until he accidentally falls of the cliff.

It’s a scene from a much better movie, hampered by the fact even it is a series of cheap, unconvincing effects shots. I won’t go into the trials and tribulations of Varan‘s source movie except to say it was originally made for TV in the late ’50s. With that in mind, the bits of it we see here look especially ambitious…that doesn’t make them any better, but it does make them more interesting in a way later, made-for-TV monster movies just can’t be.

Even on the cheap, Honda tried to move the genre forward, out into the country, presaging his later work on King Kong vs. Godzilla and Frankenstein Conquors the World. After wading through the JDSF’s barage, Obake destroys the village, fulfilling the islander’s prophecy by annihilating their entire world. It’s the one piece of dramatic irony in Varan that actually works since the rest is all heavy-handed, cheese-garnished dialogue Sid Harris crammed into Myron Healey’s mouth.

Everything about this flick is so generic it’s actually kind of awesome…in a horrible sort of way. I was having a lot of fun with Varan…until Anna had her Dramatic Breakdown and started blaming herself for Obake’s rampage. “You wanted to evacuate the village, but you change your plans just to please me.” Bradley reassures here that “No one is to blame for this.”

"Is, no, wait...dude, that's your wife! And she's doing a fan dance! On a ridge!"
"Is, no, wait...dude, that's your wife! And she's doing a fan dance! On a ridge! What the hell?"

Bullshit, dude. You are. This giant monster’s all on you. No one in Godzilla‘s cast actually woke him up. It’s not their fault he attacked Tokyo. I guess you could argue the miners of Kitamatsu facilitated Rodan‘s hatching…but, as we learned from Shigeru’s Voiceover Monologue, “Kitamatsu is a mining community. Almost all of us who live here are dependent upon the mines for our livelihood.” What the fuck else were they gonna do? Starve? They were gonna break through Shaft #8 eventually, so the whole thing had this creepy air of fate to it…but you, Commander Bradley, you have no such thing to hide behind. And you can be damn sure your superiors are already planning to make you their patsy once word of all this nonsense reaches the papers. (Your wife is friends with a pair of Reporters, after all…)

If I had to sum up Varan in an analogy, I’d say “Varan is like a crappy tie-in comic book set in Daikaiju Baran‘s universe. Another take on the same damn daikaiju story, marinated in a lot of early ’60s sexism and imperialist cliches.” Except that’s not even close. Sections of Honda’s filmĀ  forcibly intrude into this one, literally shoving it out of the way. Almost as if two universes were struggling to exist in the same place at the same time. And why not? The giant prehistoric lizard is already one great big “Fuck you” to the laws of physics.

This movie’s just a great big “Fuck you” to good taste. It’s the classic, consummate Bad Movie: so ineptly made you can’t help but howl with laughter at it. Like Yongary, Reptilicus, or…hell, Batman and Robin…so much went wrong here that the few remaining good bits feel out of place in the midst of such uniform awfulness. Varan‘s one decently-cast actor plays an imperialist monster you don’t care about, and despite taking four years to make it stateside, Varan feels like it was shot over a weekend. It’s a film made to reset your Bad Movie standards. Therefore, I can only love it, right down to its pale, sickly heart.


2 thoughts on “Varan the Unbelievable (1962)”

  1. too bad all the drive-ins are gone. sounds like a good one for teenage sex in the back of the pick-up. can’t believe i missed this one when we needed somewhere to go on a cheap date. used to love really bad movies.

    1. The heck of it is, you probably “saw” it on the back half of a double bill. In its final form the movie’s barely an hour long. The kind of film that’s over before you even came up for air.

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