Thursday, July 21, 2016

Varan (1958)

Varan was originally put into production to be shown on American television, and Godzilla/Rodan director Ishiro Honda went right to work on it.  However, with most of the film already completed, the television producers backed out, leaving Toho with a lot of work and hardly anything to show for it.  However, when life gives you lemons, you go ahead and make lemonade. Toho shot more scenes and ended up releasing the film in theaters.  Because it was being shot for television, it had been shot in black and white rather than in color, making this the final dip into black and white for Toho's theatrical monster franchise.  Now, I have to say, while the first act of this movie is a winner for me, Varan has always been one of my least favorite films in the franchise - as well as one of my least favorite monsters.  An engaging first act quickly degenerates into a messy retread of the tropes seen in the previous films, plus Varan himself is just staggeringly dull as a monster.  But still:

Opening with a truly stirring score from Akira Ifukube (which will largely be reworked and used as a main theme in later Godzilla movies), as well as in wide-screen (or Tohoscope, as they call it... though, I read that to accomplish that for this film, they actually cropped a good deal of the shot-for-tv footage, which is a bummer), the film takes us to a remote valley in Japan, where an extremely rare species of butterfly - usually native to Siberia - is found.  A pair of entomologists go to investigate their habitat, located along the Kitakami River, to discover why the insects might be living in Japan.  However, their journey is short-lived.  The two are crushed to death almost instantaneously.  The nearby superstitious villagers of the Kitakami River insist that the deaths were a result of the wrath of their mountain god Baradagi-Sanjin.

Back at the lab which had sent the original entomologists, another expedition is prepared.  All of their interest in rare butterflies, however, is entirely forgotten, and instead their main goal is to investigate the deaths of their two comrades.  This time the investigation is funded by a film company named 20th Century Mysteries Solved, an organization that seeks to uncover the truth behind the two deaths to report on it.  The party includes two reporters from the company: Horiguchi, a photographer, and Yuriko, the sister of one of the men who had been crushed to death, along with an entomologist named Kenji from the scientific community.

The three of them head out, and find that the bus only goes so far inland.  To reach the village where the men were killed, the party is forced to travel on foot.  This first act of the film is thoroughly interesting.  I'd even go so far as to say that it benefits from the black and white photography.  That, coupled with the excellent scenery and cinematography culminates in a truly mysterious and tense tone for the film.  And that tone is skyrocketed to epic heights when Akira Ifukube's score kicks in.  I cannot stress how much I love the main musical theme of this movie - a theme which almost exclusively plays during the first act of the film.  The group travel further inland and stumble upon a village doing a ritualistic prayer to their mountain god. The priest of the village warns the travelers that their presence will make their god, Baradagi, angry. However, the warnings fall of deaf ears, as the expedition scoffs at the idea of humans in the 20th Century believing in such paranormal garbage.  Moments later, trouble ensues when Ken, a young local boy, runs out of the village after his dog.  The villagers are barred from chasing him by the priest, who claims that going further inland toward the nearby lake will only anger their god.  The expedition, however, speaks up, saying that there is no such thing and that there is clearly nothing to fear.  "Even the small boy ran in there," one of them points out.  A portion of the villagers agree, forsaking tradition, and agreeing to head into the forest, toward the lake to rescue Ken. 

At the lake's edge, shrouded in some really atmospheric fog, they find Ken and the dog, and all reunite happily.  Their reunion is cut short, though, by a reptilian monster rising from the Kitakami River. The villagers flee back to their homes, but the giant lizard gives chase.  It enters the village, killing the priest who was guarding the entrance, and then proceeds to tear apart the huts inside. After the destruction, the monster retreats to his underwater lair.  It's a pretty good scene.  The creature has a truly impressive form, with a long whip-like tail that is pretty spectacular on screen.

Reports of the creature's existence are sent back, and the creature is dubbed Varan.  I didn't realize this until about a year or so ago when I googled "Varan" and it came up with a picture of a bunch of lizards, but the Varanidae are a family of lizards of the superfamily Varanoidea. The family includes a group of carnivorous and frugivorous lizards, including monitor lizards and Komodo Dragons (the largest living lizards).  As news spreads, Japan decides to take preventative measures.  Rather than wait for another city or village to be destroyed, the defense force is mobilized near the Kitakami River.  Nearby villages are evacuated, as tanks and ground artillery units move into position. Shortly after the evacuation, the military begins releasing toxins into the river to drive the monster out.  Dead fish rise to the surface, and soon so does Varan.  Splashing angrily in the water, phase two of the SDF's plan is put into operation as tanks and artillery units begin to unleash their destructive fury on the monster. The conventional weapons have no effect, though, and the military is forced to retreat. Amongst the confusion, Yuriko manages to get caught under a falling tree, placing her right in Varan's path. Kenji narrowly manages to save his colleague, and the two seek safety in a nearby cave where Varan pursues the two, reaching his clawed hands into the cavern groping for them. Luckily, the military intervenes, firing flares over the monster's head.  Varan becomes attracted by the light, and climbs a nearby mountain in order to get a closer look. Once at the peak, though, Varan raises his arms to reveal hidden flaps of skin, similar to a flying squirrel. The creature then leaps from the mountain and glides off into the sea.  The film fades to black, and probably should have simply ended there.  All of the interesting ideas have been spent at this point, and the rest of the film is a purposeless montage of the JSDF trying to kill the monster, more or less diving this film to a pretty low ranking as far as my personal favorites go.

As the next day breaks, Varan's reign of terror continues as he capsizes a fishing boat not far from Tokyo's shores. Why is he going straight for Tokyo?  Who knows.  It is never really explained or even questioned.  The three people from the expedition still play a part in all of these events too, but there is no explanation for that either.  They serve no purpose, and we never spent/spend enough time with them to really care whether they are there or not.  It's really pretty sloppy.  The defense force remobilizes, sending a squadron of jets to intercept the creature. The jets are met with little success, as Varan manages to sink one of them that ventures to close to the water's surface.  Eventually, the monster submerges and continues his swim toward Tokyo. The military moves into phase two of their counterattack, deploying battleships to the surrounding waters and blast him out, but unfortunately the battleship's artillery has no effect against the creature.  Undiscouraged, the JSDF quickly launches a third campaign to try and stop Varan's advancement, this time using mine sweepers to seal off Tokyo. This attack, like the rest, is met with failure. Out of options, the defense force again remobilizes its forces to the area around Tokyo bay, lining the water with battleships and dispatching a battalion of tanks near Haneda airport.

Varan obviously breaks through and begins wrecking the airport.  There is a whole lot of pointless destruction and sequences of the army firing their weapons - a good portion of which is stock footage ripped shamelessly from Gojira.  Finally, they deploy more flares to try and distract the creature - which honestly seems like an obvious choice.  One would imagine that they would have thought of this earlier.  But they didn't.  They deploy some flares and find that not only is Varan distracted by them, but he is eating them as well.  Loading a flew flairs with bombs filled with a newly developed special explosive, they drop them from overhead and Varan eats them, only to have they all explode within his throat and gut.  Wounded, Varan drags himself back into the ocean, where the final explosive detonates underwater.  He has vanished, and the JSDF believe they have succeeded.  It is "another victory for mankind," or so the film posits as it ends.

When the film was finally distributed to American theaters, the American film studios took a page out of Godzilla, King of the Monsters!'s book, by reworking the entire movie.  An entirely new film was created, using American actors for all the significant dramatic scenes, and a new plot was created, which now centered around an American military scientist named James Bradley and his Japanese wife Anna conducting desalinization experiments in the salt water lake which awakened the monster.  All scenes involving Varan's ability to fly were removed, all of Ifukube's incredible music was cut, and the film is a whopping 15 minutes shorter.  Andrew Smith, of Popcorn Pictures, noted how awful the butcher job that the American version had done of the Japanese original, but also said that the original wasn't that great either.  He was perplexed at the decision to give Varan its own standalone film, saying that "considering how some of the more popular Toho monsters have never received their own film, the decision to give Varan his own vehicle is mind-boggling."  And indeed it is, even when considering that the film was originally intended for television in America, Toho would later come up with an entire pantheon of great monsters.  Why was this one so forgettable?

The familiar themes of man vs. nature are in tact here, along with a message about pillaging some of the wilderness' most deep and remote treasures, but its most interesting moments have to do with the opening scenes of the movie where both expeditions come into contact with the remote village.  The villagers there are superstitious mystics, praying that their god will not destroy them.  Both teams of scientists, as well as the reporters, mock these rituals, and they do so in the name of rationality.  There are some interesting ideas afoot as scholarly, learned characters scoff at those who are rooted in traditions and myths.  The educated fail to head the warnings of the superstitious.  They even go so far as to "convert" most of the village to their way of thinking.  And in the end, the educated were right.  There was no angry god.  But there was a price to pay for not heeding the warnings.  While no god was there, there was something which was to be feared.  Sure, it was physical and a part of nature (though, likely a mutant relic of the past), but still, the villager's superstitions had kept them safe from it up until that point.  But when they all go and catch its attention, it gives chase and destroys the whole village, killing the priest who still insisted it to be Baragadi the god, thereby shattering everything that was left about their way of life.  Is this the price of progress?  Perhaps.  Perhaps there was wisdom on both sides.  Either way, the "educated" are all that remain for the rest of the film, and when they come back to harass the creature, it more or less plows through them all wreaking havoc along the way until they finally repel it.  The price we pay still, I guess.

It's interesting, but beyond Varan's first attack at the village, the film turns into an unbelievably boring chase-sequence, following the world's worst monster as he makes a completely senseless beeline for a heavily populated area.  It's tired.  It's trite.  It's not that good.  Varan himself, though visually interesting for his initial appearances, is boring and hardly able to keep up his presence for an entire feature film.  With no powers or abilities beyond his gliding skills (which he only uses once), it's sort of the equivalent of watching an angry bear thrash around for an hour while people scream at it.  Fun for a while, but it gets old - especially when there aren't any fresh action pieces in the latter parts of the film.  Oh well.  While production of this film was clearly troubled, it also clearly was never meant to hold its own for such a long runtime.  Another extremely clear fact is that this giant monster outing from Toho is, above all, predictable.  It's something we've seen several times before - all of which were done with more skill and heart than this.  It was time for the series to shake things up with something a little more original and interesting.  And that they would do, in several years when Ishiro Honda gave another crack at giant monsters in the form of 1961's Mothra.

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