Varan the Unbelievable


Varan the Unbelievable is a Japanese rubber-suit monster movie made in 1958. The version I saw was the chopped-up American remake (1962), ala Raymond Burr’s Godzilla. Interestingly the monster’s name seems to be Obaki, not Varan the Unbelievable, but whatever.

Commander James Bradley sets up base at an isolated Japanese island. He wants to do experiments on the isle’s saltwater lake, using a chemical to convert saline to fresh water. Even though everyone in the movie thinks this is a bad idea the tests still go on. At his wife’s urging, the Commander decides not to evacuate the villagers who, you know, live there. The American version portrays the Commander sympathetically; apparently the Commander doesn’t even appear in the Japanese version, which seems to have a different plot.

The villagers believe a monster lives in the lake. In a plot twist everyone sees coming, said monster lurches out of the lake when the chemical sinks in. Varan has spikes running down his back and looks like a cross between Godzilla and Anguirus. Sometimes the Unbelievable One walks on four legs, sometimes on two. He destroys the village and then heads for a larger city – in the American version it’s Oneida – to demolish, because that’s what monsters do.

The Commander and his wife get stuck in a Jeep, and spend the final act of the movie trying to radio the city and tell them about the magic chemical that can kill Varan. Varan attacks the city, but flees when the magic chemical is detonated in his face. The Commander and his wife leave for Southern California, leaving the villagers to rebuild their shattered lives.

The best part of Varan the Unbelievable is Varan, who is freaky-looking. There’s a sequence in the 1958 version where the Unbelievable One flies or glides through the air like an enormous squirrel. That was cut in the American version (even though it appears in the trailer), which is only 67 minutes. Some of the movie’s other cuts don’t make sense (who was the guy driving the truck?), but this version of the movie is a cheapo so it doesn’t really matter.

Bottom-line: I enjoyed Varan the Unbelievable, but it’s for connoisseurs of Japanese monster movies only.


I watched Gurozuka on my brand new Fandor subscription. Fandor has an interesting collection of horror films, many of which I’ve never seen before, and I’m hoping I’ll like their offerings better than I liked Gurozuka. This is the first Japanese slasher flick I have ever seen and it features a few wrinkles on the slasher trope. All the characters are female and the movie contains no sexual element or even subtext.

A newly reformed high school film club returns to the cabin in the woods where the previous high school film club made a movie named Gurozuka. One student died during the making of this film and another was institutionalized. The grainy footage – recovered by Maki, the head of the film club – is spooky, featuring a Noh-mask wearing figure wielding a meat cleaver.

There are seven girls, six students and their teacher. The trouble starts when Natsuki –queen bee and aspiring model – quits the production when she learns that Maki and Ai – who organized this little jaunt in the woods – are planning on making a horror movie. Natsuki isn’t nice about quitting, but you can’t blame her for feeling misled. After that, the bad mojo comes fast: stolen food, poison mushrooms and a Noh-mask wearing killer with a meat cleaver. One similarity Gurozuka shares with American slasher flicks is its brain-dead characters, as the girls are too busy bickering and sniping to notice the killer in their midst.

I cannot say I liked Gurozuka. I didn’t guess the identity of the killer, but on the other hand I didn’t care about the identity of the killer. The idea that the student film is cursed, filling whoever watches it with the urge to kill and perhaps reenact the events of the movie, is an interesting idea that is never fully explored. Too bad.

Here are a few things I liked about Gurozuka: the Noh mask killer was freaky. A few scenes scared me, and the video footage was effective. I think my problem with this movie has to do with the fact that I didn’t like any of the characters. I’m not crazy about movies whose main attraction is rooting for all the annoying people to die. Gurozuka doesn’t even get that right, as most of the deaths occur off-screen. The Final Girl twist at the end is intriguing, but not enough to save this movie.

Ju-On: The Grudge

Writing a review of Ju-On: The Grudge is tough for me. This is a movie I avoided for months because I’d heard it was so scary. After actually watching it I was underwhelmed, but that might be because of my expectations. Or maybe I’m spoiled. Ju-On: The Grudge doesn’t hold a candle to Dark Water. I don’t know how it compares to Ringu, because I’ve only seen the American remake.

A man kills his wife, the family cat and his son. He dies soon afterwards. The house becomes cursed, meaning that anyone who steps foot inside dies. It might take awhile – even years – but eventually the ghosts will get you. The vengeful spirits in question are the wife Kayako, her son Toshio and the family cat. Sometimes the husband makes an appearance.

Rika is a social worker who enters the house to check on an elderly woman. It doesn’t take her long to meet the former occupants. The point-of-view switches to Kazumi, the elderly woman’s daughter-in-law; and then to Kazumi’s husband; and then the husband’s sister; and so on. This movie has no main character, which gives it the feel of a series of short films spliced together. It also makes it hard to view the characters as anything more than cannon fodder.

That would be okay, except Ju-On: The Grudge isn’t scary. It didn’t scare me, anyway. Parts of this movie are bizarre and freaky, but the jump scares didn’t make me jump. Perhaps that’s because I’m conditioned to respond to Hollywood type jump-scares. I give them points for creativity. Kayako crawls around on her belly and hisses like a rattlesnake and Toshio does a great cat imitation.

I wouldn’t describe Ju-On: The Grudge as a bad movie, but it has problems. It isn’t scary. The time shifts aren’t in chronological order, which is disorienting. I also didn’t care about any of the characters. This movie did hold my interest; my mood as I watched can be described as mildly interested. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps I’m not the intended audience and this is a movie for a younger audience.


Sadako vs. Kayako

(Warning: don’t watch the trailer if you plan on seeing this movie)

Sadako vs. Kayako is a Japanese horror movie available on Shudder, a streaming service that specializes in horror cinema. Shudder costs $4.99 per month to subscribe, and if you are a horror fan it’s a good deal. However, I would think twice about subscribing for this movie.

The idea of Sadako vs. Kayako is simple: have the evil spirits of the Ring and Grudge franchises battle it out. I followed the plot without seeing either Ringu or Ju-On: The Grudge, but the Kayako story confused me because at first I didn’t realize there were two spirits in the house.

A few words about the ghouls in question. When you watch a cursed videotape Sadako will appear and kill you two days later. Kayako and Kid Ghost live in a deserted house, and you will die if you step foot inside. Thus, Sadako and Kayako are based on similar memes – if you do X you will die – which turns out to be important.

The plot: college students Natsumi and Yuri buy a used VCR to transfer old video footage to DVD format. There’s already a tape in the VCR. Natsumi watches it while Yuri is texting. Afterwards, Natsumi gets the obligatory call from Sadako on her cell phone. Through a chain of events too complicated to go into, the girls meet Spiritual Medium Kyozo, who seems to be the rock star of mediums.

The Kayako story is much less complex and feels shoehorned into the plot. Four schoolboys enter Kayako’s house and none return in one of the movie’s better sequences. Suzuka, another student, enters the murder house despite repeated warnings. Maybe she’s suicidal? Who knows? There are a lot of characters in Sadako vs. Kayako, and most of them do stupid things. Spiritual Medium Kyozo’s master plan makes no sense. Someone even transfers the Sadako video to DVD and then uploads it to the Internet. Why? Yeah, that’s a good question.

And then there’s the title. Anyone who’s seen one of the many Godzilla sequels knows what Sadako vs. Kayako means. The monsters battle it out! Unfortunately, the fight scenes are dull and the movie isn’t scary. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Sadako vs. Kayako might be a comedy.

Recommended for series completists only. I am not sure if fans of either The Grudge or Ring franchises will like this movie.

The Ring

Trivia question: what horror movie remake grossed a quarter of a billion dollars and helped spawn a horror subgenre in the U.S.? I am of course talking about the remake of The Ring, starring Naomi Watts. I would have watched Ringu – the original – but I can’t find it anywhere.

The plot: intrepid reporter Rachel hears an urban legend about a cursed videotape that will supposedly kill you seven days after viewing. After tracking the videotape down and watching it, Rachel’s hardboiled skepticism quickly turns to complete belief. Despite the danger, Rachel makes a copy of the videotape and shows it to her ex, who comes to believe her but isn’t angry that she, you know, showed it to him.

The videotape itself is a bunch of disjointed images that don’t seem to make any sense, and most of The Ring is devoted to deciphering them. Following a trail of lighthouses, falling ladders, dead horses and hidden wells leads our heroine to the ghost of a creepy little girl. Can Rachel decipher the angry spirit’s secret before her seven days are up?

Two things struck me about The Ring. The first is that certain plot elements of this movie most likely inspired It Follows. The second is the lack of jump scares; J-horror is infamous for its creepy children and jump scares. With the exception of the ending, The Ring isn’t all that scary. When it comes down to it, not a whole lot happens in this movie.

I also didn’t like Rachel, The Ring’s main character. If you found a cursed videotape that is supposed to kill you seven days after viewing, would you watch it? A lot of people might, especially skeptics. Would you make a copy and show it to your ex? Maybe, if you didn’t like your ex. How about bringing the videotape home and leaving it around the living room so your curious child can watch it? Thoughtlessness is one thing; blatant stupidity is something else.

I bought The Ring fifteen years ago. After watching half the movie, I hit the Stop button. Now I remember why I did it. Unfortunately, this movie just doesn’t hold up.