Varan the Unbelievable DVD Review

Godzilla already had a sequel. Rodan had ripped apart Japan. Toho needed a fresh monster, and with backing from an American TV company, Varan was born. Varan also died quickly and mercifully, making a fleeting appearance in Destroy All Monsters before fading into obscurity. It's not hard to see why.

The Japanese version included on this DVD is, as always, almost a completely different film than the American cut. Scenes with Myron Healy spliced into the TV version for US audiences hardly mesh at all, slowing the film down to an unbearable pace, and sadly, that's one of the few things the film had going for it. Varan makes an appearance within 20-minutes, and it's either all out war or destruction from there on out.

There's little characterization here. There's no time for it as the film clocks in under 90-minutes. Unfortunately, only Varan the Unbelievable could make city smashing dull. To start, the monster is hilarious, with a goofy, contorted face that hardly looks menacing or terrifying. The suit flops around like it's not attached properly, the joints bend like a t-shirt, and while Godzilla-suit actor Haruou Nakajima gives it his best, walking on all fours does not work.

The lone scene showing off Varan's flying ability was wisely excised for the US version. Not only does it look more ridiculous than the monster itself, you can plainly see directly through the creature to the clouds in a botched shot (and with the enhanced resolution of the DVD, the suspending wires too). Other special effects shots go wrong, including a close up of two miniature tanks that accidentally crash into each other, then go about their way as if nothing happened.

It's this inherent sloppiness that plagues Varan all the way through. It began shooting in a 4:3 aspect ratio as a feature meant to go directly to TV in the US, then switched to Tohoscope (2.35:1) when the deal fell through and Toho decided to go theatrical. Unless you're looking, this isn't something you'll notice; it's simply a sign of just how wrong this entire production is.

Toho also went for budget cutting, forcing stock footage from Godzilla just four years earlier. If it doesn't show the monster or the lead characters during the final struggle, it's stock footage. In fact, there are two shots of Godzilla himself spliced in, one of his foot crashing through a roof, another of his tail that's blatantly obvious. Color was also lost, even though the spectacle of Rodan brought it to kaiju films for the first time just two years prior.

The soundtrack is done by the master, Akira Ifukube. While there are some original themes, tracks are borrowed from Rodan. The newly composed music was good enough to be used in other kaiju films, including a military march and a track that would practically become Godzilla's own.

Varan is simply one of those movie that never should have been made. Of the Toho monster line-up, Varan is the worst of the group to get a stand-alone film. There's nothing original or different brought to the table to separate this from the rest of the studio's output at the time. At the very least, Mothra and Rodan are inspired creations. Varan never had a chance. (* out of *****)

Even though the film doesn't deserve it based on quality, Media Blasters has done a simply shocking job on this transfer. Wherever they found this print, here's hoping they find more Japanese monster movies in the same place. It's perfect, with not a single blemish or scratch all the way through (ignoring the excessive stock footage). Compression is not noticeable. The print is soft, at times almost out of focus, and that's the only way it shows its age. The black levels could have been calibrated a little better too. You'll need to deviate from your normal settings. (****)

The audio is strange on this disc. There are three options here, including 5.1, the oddball 3.0, and 2.0 mono. None is better than the other is, and in fact, the 5.1 is the worst of the group. Certain scenes simply push the audio through all five speakers, regardless of whether or not it makes sense. The 3.0 mix is about five levels quieter than the other two. Mono is, in a rare situation, the best way to go here. You can hear Varan's cheap, slapped together roar (taken from Godzilla and Rodan partly) cleanly and the Japanese dialogue sounds great in any of the mixes, but the mono doesn't have any quirks. (***)

Extras here are some of the best ever put onto a US released kaiju film, and it makes up (almost) for the film itself. Most notable is an active, informative, and fun commentary from Keizo Murase, one of the special effects producers. This was his first monster movie, and he's very enthusiastic, explaining the technique of how the suit came together (its spines are pieces of a clear garden hose). He discusses others that worked on the film, the shoot, and the experience. This is all done in Japanese with appropriate subtitles, but whoever translated it doesn't spell very well at all. There are countless typos.

The next extra seems to be an episode of a Japanese TV show where Murase takes a student through the process of creating a monster suit. It's all explained in detail as he creates the skin texture for Varan from scratch. They even create those spikes made from a hose. He may discuss this same process in the commentary, but it's something else entirely to actually see it done.

The TV broadcast version is here, though there's no explanation for what it is exactly. The best guess is this is the version that aired on Japanese TV since it's not the US version. Oddly, it's in the same aspect ratio as the theatrical version. One would think it would be cropped for TV. It cuts about an hour out of the film, so if it was fast paced before, it's barely even possible to comprehend it now. The disc finishes with trailers, including The Mysterians and Attack of the Mushroom People. (****)

Just in case you're wondering, Varan's appearance in Destroy All Monsters is a rather pointless cameo at the ending. You see him lift his arms and fly away in a long shot. You can barely even tell it's the same creature. Supposedly, the suit had degraded too much to be shown on film. That or they were too embarrassed to bring him back. It's your call.

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