Review By Richard Ellis

[The following is excerpted from Search for the Giant Squid, by Richard Ellis. Reproduced with permission of the author.]

Peter Benchley's novel Beast was published in 1991, and like all of his "man-eating monster" stories, it became a best65895 seller. Jaws was a blockbuster when it was published in 1975, but it did not enter the stratosphere until it was made into a film, directed by Stephen Spielberg. Before the 1977 release of Star Wars, Jaws was the highest-grossing movie in Hollywood history. Benchley had intended to call his giant squid novel "The Last Monster," but his editors thought that "Beast" would be a better name, and "Beast" it became. (In the novel, however, he has an expert on giant squid write a book called "The Last Dragon."

Just as in Jaws, the book opens with a description of the eponymous monster, lurking in the darkness of the ocean:

It hovered in the ink dark water, waiting.
It was not a fish, had no air bladder to give
it buoyancy, but because of the special
chemistry of its flesh, it did not sink into the abyss.
It was not a mammal, did not breathe air, so it felt no impulse to move to the surface.
It hovered.
It was not asleep, for it did not know sleep, sleep was not among its natural rhythms. It rested, nourishing itself with oxygen absorbed from the water pumped through the caverns of its bullet-shaped body.
Its eight sinuous arms floated on the current; its two long tentacles were coiled tight against its body. When it was threatened or in the frenzy of a kill, the tentacles would spring forward, like tooth-studded whips...
It existed to survive. And to kill.
For, peculiarly -- if not uniquely -- in the world of living things, it often killed without need, as if Nature, in a fit of perverse malevolence, had programmed it to that end.

And again, as in Jaws, the first thing the monster does is gobble up some unsuspecting humans. The similarities between the shark thriller and the squid thriller might lead one to suspect a certain dependence on formula: Big monster begins eating people in beach town, panic ensues, hero (often marine biologist accompanied by valiant fisherman) offers to subdue monster; town leaders do not want to close beaches, more people get eaten, intrepid hero triumphs and dispatches monster in a burst of pyrotechnics. There is even a delicate little self-referential episode in Beast, where Darling says, "Whenever I hear talk about monsters, I think about Jaws. People forget Jaws was fiction, which is another word for..., well, you know, B.S... My rule is, when someone tells me about a critter as big as a tractor-trailer, I right away cut a third or a half off what he says... But with this beast, seems to me when you hear stories about him, the smart thing to do is not cut anything off. The smart thing to do is double 'em."

It is not surprising that Benchley chose Architeuthis as the protagonist of his novel. Given the (largely erroneous) hyperbole that has circulated about the giant squid, Architeuthis certainly qualifies as a scary monster.(Does it matter that the giant squid has never been seen alive and has never been implicated in an attack on anything? Only if you're a stickler for accuracy.) There is something inherently repulsive about a sixty-foot-long creature with a fiece beak, gigantic, unblinking eyes, and flailing arms equipped with suckers.

Many of the elements in Beast came from Peter Benchley's imagination, but some -- like the story he tells of "something" dragging fishermens' traps around the bottom at great depths -- has a basis, if not in fact, then in legend. As reported by Richard Greenwell in the International Society of Cryptozoology Newsletter, a Bermuda fisherman named John P. "Sean" Ingham was having a lot of trouble with his traps. Ingham is a deepwater crab and shrimp fisherman, whose traps are regularly lowered to between 1,000 and 2,000 fathoms. And recently, these specially reinforced traps have been coming up bent and damaged, or, in some cases, not coming up at all.

On September 3, 1984, Ingham was winching up a trap that had been on the bottom at 500 fathoms. About halfway up, the line broke. It would take a weight of over 600 pounds to break the line, which was polyethelyne rope. Dr. Bennie Rohr, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service Southeast Laboratory at Pascagoula, Mississippi, suggested that it might be the work of a giant octopus, since a full cage of tasty shrimp or crabs would be the perfect bait for it. (Giant squid presumably feed on faster moving prey, such as fishes and other, smaller, squid.) On another occasion, when a smaller trap was being hauled up from 480 fathoms, the trap seemed rooted to the bottom as if something very heavy was holding it, and the line, with a 4,500-pound breaking strain, was beginning to give. As if to prove that the trap was not snagged on the bottom, whatever was holding it began to pull the 50-foot boat. When Ingham put his hand on the line, he felt "thumps like something was walking."

The eponymous "beast" in Benchley's novel turns out to be a 100-foot-long, anthropophagous giant squid, but the attacks on the fish traps of Whip Darling are straight out of Sean Ingham's logbook. In the novel, Darling is pulling his traps in deep water, when the mate, Mike, tells him "Something's not right." At Mike's suggestion, Darling puts a hand on the rope, which was "trembling erratically. There was a thud to it, like an engine misfiring." As the line is hauled up, the stainless steel cable that holds the cage appears at the surface, but the trap is gone. "Bit," says Darling, "Bit clean through." Four more traps are pulled, and four more cables are bit clean through. The last of the cables comes up whole, but the trap had been wrapped around its weights so hard "it was as if everything had been melted together in a furnace."

Mike stared at it for a long moment, then said, "Jesus, Whip. What kind of sum-bitch do that?"

"No man for sure," said Darling. "No animal, neither. At least no animal I've ever seen."

In Sharks are Caught at Night, published in 1958, and purporting to be a true account of his adventures in the Caribbean, François Poli tells a remarkably similar story, which he says "was front page news in every Cuban paper." A fisherman named Sanchez found that his buoys were being pulled down "slowly and without jerks," and when he could not raise his lines he realized "that his hook had not caught on a rock but in a living and incredibly heavy mass." He knew it was not an octopus, because "an octopus wouldn't have pulled like that." For three days they tried to capture the monster, without success. "It was then it happened," writes Poli (he was a participant in this exercise), "the event that was to focus the attention of the whole Cuban press on our fishery."

Three heavy metal buoys which served as floats were bobbing about thirty yards from the boat, when they suddenly disappeared below the surface. Two days later, they were recovered, looking as if they had been flattened with hammers; "this was the result of the pressure of the water at the extraordinary depth to which they must have been dragged." Poli continues:

Two of the six lines were still attached to them, intact. A third had been cut about three feet fro the hook, and in a manner which intrigued us more than anything else. It was not a clean break, such as occurred when there had been a violent tug, or a bite. This line seemed to have been abraded, and the end of it frayed in one's fingers.

When the fishermen told their story, it was picked up by the press, and "two days later fifty thousand Cubans learned as they ate their breakfast that a huge monster was roaming around the island at a depth of 100-150 fathoms." A fisherman named Torial offered an explanation. He said that "off certain desolate coasts in Mexico monsters appeared which had never been accurately described, as no one had ever come within a mile of them. They had a huge cylindrical body striped with yellow, and tentacles something like those of an octopus. Whenever one of them was reported off-shore the fishermen refused to put to sea for days." In the end, nobody ever figured out what the creature was, but when Ralph Thompson illustrated the English edition (the book was originally published in French) he drew the mystery beast as a giant squid.

"Its eight sinuous arms floated on the current," wrote Benchley, "its two long tentacles were coiled tight against its body. When it was threatened or in the frenzy of a kill, the tentacles would spring forward, like tooth-studded whips... It existed to survive. And to kill. For, peculiarly -- if not uniquely -- in the world of living things, it often killed without need, as if Nature, in a fit of perverse malevolence, had programmed it to that end." Is any of this legitimate? Except that a squid has eight arms and two longer tentacles, not a single word of this is accurate. Even if we knew about the giant squid's eating habits -- which we don't -- it is absurd to say that it "often killed without need." Its "tooth-studded whips" are also imaginary (but necessary to the story), since Architeuthis does not have teeth on its tentacles -- or anywhere else, for that matter, unless you count the microscopic denticles on its radular tongue.

Despite the intentions of the author (or perhaps because of them), the line between fact and fiction is often obliterated in these "monster" novels -- think of how people reacted to the stories of the homicidally maniacal white shark in Jaws -- and sensationalism often supersedes reality. One might argue that a writer of horror fiction is not bound by the niceties of biological accuracy. The same argument could be applied to Jules Verne, who wrote that his twenty-five-foot long giant squid weighed between forty and fifty thousand pounds, and slid its arms down the hatchways of the Nautilus, plucking hapless sailors out of the submarine with the intention of devouring them. Nevertheless, it is grating -- at least to those who know how little is actually known about Architeuthis -- to hear the "marine biologist" spouting such nonsense.

In the novel (and later in the film), Captain Whip finds a gigantic claw that eventually proves to be the element that identifies the perpetrator of the attacks as a giant squid. As it attacks a fish, "the clubs at the ends of the whips fastened on flesh, their toothed circles tore at it, the crescent-shaped hooks erect within each circle slashed it to shreds." The dust jacket of the novel shows a single tentacle snaking out of the water, with a claw in the middle of each sucker disc. (Even those squids that do have claws -- and there are many -- do not have them in the suckers, but rather as completely separate devices, often retractable like those of a cat.)

After two scuba divers are gobbled up, the town fathers call in Dr. Herbert Talley, the world's foremost authority on squid and the author of The Last Dragon, the definitive work on the subject. When Dr. Talley arrives in Bermuda, he tells Whip that he is "a doctor of malacology," which he explains means "a doctor of squid." Dr. Squid delivers a lecture about the habits of his favorite subject, where he explains that Architeuthis is "what we call an adventitious feeder. He feeds by accident, he eats whatever's there. His normal diet -- I've looked in their stomachs -- is sharks, rays, big fish. But he'll eat anything." (During the same lecture, Talley tells Whip that the squid are around because their normal food items have been fished out of Bermuda waters, and besides, their only predators, the sperm whales, "could already be practically extinct.")

Various people decide to descend in a submersible to see if they can see the beast. Bad idea. The squid grabs the little sub, and tries to break it open because it knows there is food inside. It tests the portholes with its tongue, sensing that the glass is weaker than the metal hull of the capsule. Then with its "curved, scythe-like beak, amber-colored, its sharply pointed end pressing on the glass," it punches through the porthole, floods the capsule, and scarfs up the poor souls who thought they might have a look at a real monster.

As the story builds to its final confrontation, the men are at sea having decided to lure the squid into range with a sex decoy -- a hook-studded, squid-shaped lure that releases "a chemical that perfectly replicates the breeding attractant of Architeuthis -- so they can shoot it or blow it up with Semtex, a plastic explosive. The squid, drawn inexorably by the "most basic of all impulses," grabs the lure, dashes off, and then, when it realizes that its been fooled by a poor imitation, it gets really mad. It returns to the ship, and because the would-be squid hunters had the foresight to deploy an underwater video camera, they see their cephalopod adversary for the first time:

"My God," Sharp said. "Is that an eye?"

Talley nodded.

"What kind of size?" asked Darling.

"I can't tell," Talley said. "There's nothing to measure it against. But if the focal length of the camera was about six feet, and they eye fills the whole frame, it has to be... like so." He held his hands about two feet apart. For a moment he gazed at this hands, as if unable to believe the size of the span he had created. Then in a voice barely above a whisper, he said, "The thing must be ninety feet, perhaps more... This could be a hundred-foot animal."

The squid attacks the boat, furious that these puny humans dared to trifle with its emotions:

Its chemistry was agitated, and its colors changed many times as its senses struggled to decipher conflicting messages. First there had been the irresistible impulse to breed; then perplexity when it had tried to mate and been unable to; then confusion when the alien thing had continued to emit breeding spoor; then anxiety as it had tried to shed the thing and found that it could not.

Even though squid and octopuses are considered the intellectuals of the cephalopod family, this is a rather exceptional range of emotions for an invertebrate whose close relatives include clams, mussels, and snails. But this is one furious squid, and as it attacks the ship, it loses one of its arms to the whirling propeller. Does the loss of an arm discourage it? Hardly. It reaches up on the deck with one of the club ends of its whip:

Something was coming over the bulwark. For a moment it seemed to ooze like a giant purple slug. Then the front end of it curled back like a lip, and it began to rise and fan out until it was four feet across and eight feet high, and it blacked out the rays of the sun. It was covered with quivering circles, like hungry mouths, and in each one Darling could see a shining amber blade.

With its seven arms and two whips, the squid is grabbing everything on the deck of the ship, and it has poor Dr. Talley as an hors d'oeuvre. When Whip Darling tries to defend himself with a boat hook, the squid delicately removes it from his hands and drops it into the sea. Then Darling tries a chain saw, with the same results. All seems lost, and with everybody snared in a tangle of writhing arms, along comes the mother sperm whale (the deus ex physeter?) whose calf had been killed by the hungry squid several chapters earlier. She leaps out of the water like Flipper, and bites the squid's head off. The End?

Well, not quite. The big squid is gone, but in the last chapter, Benchley paves the way for a sequel, just as he did in Jaws. In the movie, the shark is blown to smithereens, but in the novel, it is stabbed in the guts by Captain Quint just before he dies, and the shark sinks in "a slow and graceful spiral, trailing behind it the body of Quint...." Like Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick, who was dragged to his death by the great white whale he had harpooned, Quint dies after harpooning the great white shark. And like Moby Dick ("not only ubiquitous but immortal"), the shark lives on, in this case to spawn no fewer than three Hollywood sequels -- and probably Beast as well.

Beast (the movie) is roughly the same as Beast (the novel), but with the obligatory emendations for Hollywood purposes. (The movie was actually shot in Australia.) In the novel, Whip Darling is a Bermuda fisherman; in the film, he becomes "Whip Dalton," and the venue has been moved to Washington State (where, incidentally, there has never been a report of a giant squid). His wife, an important part of the original plot, has been replaced by a Coast Guard officer who had a bad experience in her previous relationship; and instead of a single, hungry beast, there are now two, mother and child. Same old business about the town fathers not wanting the bad publicity (this time it is Schuyler Graves, who heads the town's redevelopment project), and more old business about nobody believing that such a creature could exist. ("Nothing could get to be that big," etc.)

As in the novel, the squid picks off unwary sailors, and leaves behind a claw as evidence of its existence. But where the claw in the novel is described as two inches long, the one picked up by Whip D. is about five inches long, resembling nothing more than one of the eviscerating talons of the velociraptors in Jurassic Park. In the movie, we see the squid, moving menacingly through the water, as it prepares for its next meal. (If they gave awards for special effects in a television mini-series, Architeuthis, already the recipient of two Oscars, would certainly win another.) Most of the depictions of the squid appear to be accurate -- as far as we know, since no one has ever actually seen one -- but for some reason, they have the squid lying on the bottom as the two scuba divers approach their demise. (Giant squid may indeed lie on the bottom, but there is no reason to assume that they do.)

In order to explain the unnaturally malicious behavior of the giant squid, bizarre statements are again put into the mouth of the "marine biologist." Dr. Herbert Talley arrives on the scene, hot to see the object of his lifelong obsession. (The Last Dragon is not mentioned, but he has managed to supply a film of Humboldt squid in action, to instill the proper teuthophobia into anyone who sees it.) Not only does the captain have a new love interest, but his Valley-girl daughter does too. As soon as you see the way she looks at Talley's assistant, you know the kid is headed straight for the beast's gullet.

Lucas Coven, the town's renegade fisherman, is one of the people who has been illegally trap fishing -- and therefore depriving fishermen like Whip of the opportunity to earn an honest living -- so naturally, he is the one who first sees the squid. (But because he is a boozer and an anti-environmentalist, he will not survive to see the end of the film.) The squid passes under his boat, and in fact, this is the first time we see it; it is a reddish, many-armed apparition, swimming just below the surface. There is a lot of fast-moving underwater footage (the squid's POV?), and a lot of ominously-throbbing music that sounds not unlike the sound track of a certain shark movie. And like that movie, the beast shows its mettle by killing a whale, whose remains wash up on the beach. (In Jaws, it is a killer whale, in Beast, a baby sperm whale.) In a driving rainstorm, as Lucas tries to kill the mother, it attacks his boat and drags it under.

The remaining squid hunters - Whip, Schuyler Graves, Dr. Talley, Lt. Marcus, and Osborn Manning of Houston's Sea Land (who wants to capture it alive), realize that the 37-footer killed by Lucas Coven is "only three months old" (some growth rate!) and that the mother is around and really angry. ("Architeuthis is known to be a vengeful beast," says Talley, "it was interested in only one thing -- it wanted to kill... and here, my God, its child has been murdered. How could it not want vengeance?") They set out with the sex decoy, but Manning, who recognizes the dollar value of a living giant squid, plans to anesthetize it instead of killing it, using Phenobarbital in stead of cyanide, and bring it back alive to Texas. The squid takes the lure, and as they reel it in, Manning manages to shoot a couple of his tranquilizing darts into it. Since the others thought he was going to kill it, they celebrate its demise -- somewhat prematurely, as it turns out. Everybody not in the aquarium business worries about what will happen when the snoozing cephalopod wakes up, and they don't have long to wait. The Phenobarb wears off, and screaming lustily, the squid breaks the "unbreakable" cable that held her, and prepares for the denouement.

In Benchley novels, anyone who is not politically correct is very likely to be eaten, and Schuyler Graves panics and leaps into a inflatable boat. Giant-squid-infested waters are not the best place to be in a little rubber boat, and because he didn't want to close the beaches (and was a wimp in high school), Graves is knocked into the water by a giant tentacle, never to reappear. Screeching like a demented parrot, Momma Beast attacks Whip's vessel, and forsaking the ecologically-correct resolution of the novel, the moviemakers provide no sperm whale to save them. With her arms flailing and grabbing, the squid knocks Manning into the water, and drags poor Dr. Talley toward her snapping beak. She grasps Whip's leg while Lt. Marcus dangles from a ladder lowered by the Coast Guard helicopter. "Shoot the flare! Shoot the flare!" he shouts, and she does, igniting the gasoline that has spilled on the deck in the melee. The boat blows up, the squid becomes the largest grilled calamari in history, and Whip, who has managed to climb the ladder too, survives to fish again -- if his boat insurance covers giant squid attacks.

Until the sequel, then, we can go back in the water, but somewhat uneasily, because there are more where that one came from, and the movie plays heavily on the sense of fear that swimmers have when they swim in deep waters inhabited by Benchley's scary monsters. Where Jaws unleashed a vendetta against white sharks ("No stupid fish is going to keep me from swimming," etc.), it seems unlikely that Beast will have a similar response. After all, we have been unable to find a single live specimen in over 150 years, and no movie is going to change that -- unless giant squid like to watch themselves on television.

And if they did, they would see replicas that they might not even be able to recognize as miniatures. Despite the technological advances made in computer-generated images (think of the galloping dinosaurs in Jurassic Park), all the giant squid in Beast were models. Based on careful studies of smaller squid, the "beasts" were designed by Mixon & Ellis FX, who had provided the special effects (known as "FX") for Predator 2, Night of the Scarecrow, and Stephen King's "It". Gene Warren (who won an Academy Award in 1991 for visual effects in Terminator 2), and Leslie Huntley, of the California firm Fantasy II, were responsible for bringing the squid to life. Built of various plastics, because most of the underwater shots actually had to be shot underwater, the squid models were controlled by a team of 30 puppeteers who pushed and pulled levers that were attached to cables inside the squid. The head, which weighed nearly 200 pounds, was pneumatically driven by hydraulics under 2,000 pounds of pressure. In those scenes where the squid attacks a boat, both elements were miniaturized, the boat to a workable five feet.

The model squids in Beast are convincing enough to fool a viewer who is not familiar with the actual physiognomy of Architeuthis -- which means almost everybody. Because it was probably scarier than the expressionless eye of an invertebrate, the designers devised a strangely-lidded, reptilian eye for the giant squid; and the hideous screams of the attacking monster are probably a result of too much time spent watching (or designing) horror movies. Then too, the arms swinging around like baseball bats, knocking men into the ocean, probably have no teuthid analogue. Since no living person has ever seen a giant squid in action, the movements of the models are conjectural at best, but since the models do little besides attack boats and people, things no self-respecting Architeuthis has ever been accused of, it probably doesn't matter whether the actions are credible or not. Nobody ever studied the brachiation of a gorilla climbing a skyscraper, did they?

[The preceding was excerpted from Search for the Giant Squid, by Richard Ellis. Reproduced with permission of the author.]
Original publish date
Jun 1, 2002