Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Varan the Unbelievable (Giant Monster Varan)

1958 **1/2

I forget exactly which year I started the bad habit of neglecting 'thon reviews and then sneaking them in eleven months later, but I'm glad last year's new deadline put a stop to it. Nevertheless, I still have some unreviewed flicks from 2009 that one of my inner voices is still demanding I write about. And while I have a good memory, even that pesky voice had to admit that reviewing them meant re-watching them, because reviewing a movie I saw three years ago is beyond the scope of my powers.

I waffled between doing pre-thon reviews or just folding them into this year's lineup, and here is the result: for now you get one. One!

"Yeah, I'm gonna knock it down. I'm just having a little 'me' time."

I screened this because the monster Varan has a teeny background cameo in Destroy All Monsters. Tonight I discovered that there's confusion about this film's title. Varan the Unbelievable is the name of the American version released in 1962, which took the monster footage from the original Japanese Giant Monster Varan and added a whole new batch of characters and footage, avoiding lip-synch troubles by replacing every single line of dialogue. They also changed the plot, which involved some army research base studying desalinization on some island or something. So I've never actually seen Varan the Unbelievable, but I thought I had because the 2005 dvd release has the Japanese movie on the movie side and the American title on the picture side. Whuahh?

I think I am better off having seen the Japanese movie, because the plot is way more awesome, and by awesome I mean dumb. It all happens because of a butterfly.

Enter Dr. Sugimoto, who is apparently Japan's premiere lepidopterist and one of the most personality-free cinematic scientists I have ever come across. Nothing he says is as expressive as the Duran Duran white streak in his hair.

"Sorry for your loss. Did you bring butterflies?"

Our story opens with Dr. S. telling an eager class that a rare butterfly has been sighted in northern Japan. Two entomologists dispatched to the area find a tiny village characterized by the level of fear and superstition that movies generally reserve for remote Pacific islands. The villagers are the cautious guardians of a forbidden lake, to which they've blocked access by means of a darling little waist-high fence, complete with an unlocked gate. The entomologists are undeterred, and for their boldness are rewarded with a beautiful specimen of the very butterfly they sought, and also lots of screaming and death in a landslide.

Enter our heroes, a plucky trio with a pretty boy entomologist, the sister of one of the dead ones, and a goofy, comic-relief reporter. After the obligatory visit to Dr. Sugimoto's class, they find the village and traverse the waist-high fence and incur the wrath of Varan, a huge dinosaur thing that's been living unnoticed in the lake for millions of years. He crawls out and trashes the village's meager collection of thatched huts, honked off that his long soak in the hot tub has been interrupted. He then returns to the lake to chillax.

We get a third visit to class with the revered Dr. Sugimoto, this time while two army officers fawningly ask him to lend his butterfly expertise to their important destroy-the-giant-monster mission.

Then it's time to rally the stock footage and model tanks, as the full frontal assault on Monster Hot Tub Lake begins. The constant refrain coming from the army folks is "boy, we better get that monster, because it would really suck if it got to a city." This attitude will prove to be the very essence of reverse common sense, for reasons I expect you can predict.

Sure enough, none of the army's poison or artillery do a thing, save to finally piss Varan off enough that he leaves the comfort of his little valley for the first time in recorded history. And in a surprise move, he does this by slowly extending his armpit wings and flying away.

"Okay, gayer, gaaaayer..."


If it's not clear by now, I was not very impressed by this movie. Varan is clearly the slacker in the Toho pantheon of monsters. First he spends millions of years kickin' it in his special lake eating not one single person worth noticing, then when he finally emerges he inflicts the most lackluster rampage Japan's ever had to deal with. While the "we'll get him this time/omigod our weapons have no effect!" card gets played over and over, most of this takes place in the water, a setting woefully free of buildings to knock down. The only bright spot is a delightful moment in army headquarters, when we get to see that the boys who run the Big Map had one of these in their box of little models.

"I need to change his position, sir. Request permission to make little 'RRR! RRR!' noises."

Perhaps you've also noticed that I've made no further mention of our plucky trio; they're still around, but this movie is so boilerplate there's really nothing I can think to mention. Dr. Sugimoto does prove useful by noticing the key detail needed to take Varan down (he likes to suck flares out of the air, making really easy to make him eat bombs). This is the kind of save-the-day info most Japanese monster flicks reserve for little boys in tiny shorts, but I guess they hadn't been invented yet.

In the end I can't give Varan the Unbelievable the three-star stamp of approval, because overall it's just too snoozy. But it is a must for the kaiju completist, and if you take it on you will find a few elements of standout charm. Best of all, it depicts the only known series of groundshaking events literally caused by the beating of a butterfly's wings.

"Because NOBODY suspects the butterfly!"


Octopunk said...

I feel like pointing out

1) When I griped about asking a butterfly expert about monsters, Julie suggested perhaps he could be some kind of general biologist, which I suppose is true. Most of the time my wife does not spoil my fun.

2) And I say I can still post old reviews from 2009 because of the grandfather clause; we didn't impose the deadline until 2011. But if my plan to screen the other six next month works out, the point is moot and this is the last one. It only matters in my mind, anyway.

Catfreeek said...

The wings are hilarious, maybe the American version moves a little faster with the addition of other monsters.

Octopunk said...

It's Destroy All Monsters that has the other beasts; both versions of Varan just feature Varan (although the American version doesn't have any flying footage)(although in the Japanese version he just flies that one time).

DCD said...

Awesome. Love this review!

Catfreeek said...

I love Destroy All Monsters I guess Varan just doesn't cut it as a lone wolf.

50PageMcGee said...

...doesn't that make Varan kind of like that guy that used to follow Puff Daddy around with an umbrella?