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Friday, August 10, 2012

Sci-Guys Review: Total Recall, Konrath, and the Three-Titter

Here's my latest Sci-Guys Short Shorts piece as it appeared in Sci-Guys podcast #104:

I’m recording this before the Sci-Guys do their podcast. For all I know, they might love the new Total Recall. I didn’t. I saw it last night with my wife and another couple. For me, the entire movie was summed up in the fact that both my wife and her friend dozed off repeatedly during the film.

I’ve got a long list of stuff that’s wrong with the new version, starting with my favorite complaint, that there isn’t a single sympathetic character in the movie to connect with. In the 1990 Total Recall, you really felt bad for the oppressed mutants, which in turn made you despise the evil Cohaagen, which in turn made you root for Douglas Quaid. In the new version, I didn’t care what happened to the Australians...or Quaid.

In 1990, the female characters, Melina and Lori, were sexy and playful. I mean, go back and watch Sharon Stone. She was on fire in that movie. So how do you take two foxes like Kate Beckinsdale and Jessica Biel and drain virtually all of the sexy awesomeness out of their screen time? It’s freaking criminal.

And that’s what’s really wrong with Total Recall in 2012. It’s not fun. Yeah, Schwartzenegger comes off like a lumpy, bumbling oaf with dialog timing so bad that not even post editing could save him, but at least he was fun. His world was fun. There is no fun in the 2012 version. Amidst all of the endless explosions, the story has bled out and died, and that’s why my wife fell asleep.

Now bear with me. I want to coin a new phrase here, which never works when you try to do it on purpose but here goes. There was an element in the new Total Recall I want to describe as a “three-titter.” You remember Mary, the three-breasted mutant from the first movie. She had three breasts because she was a mutant, deformed by the radiation that was a key element in the movie’s backstory. Now, tell me why there’s a three-breasted character in the new movie when there are no other mutants. It’s a gratuitous, senseless nod to an earlier version of the story that’s simply there to tickle your nostalgia and make you think better of the current travesty in front of your face. It’s not just stupid, it’s insulting. I hereby christen this device a “three-titter.”

Which finally brings me to my short fiction recommendation. Betcha thought I forgot all about that. I recently discovered a three-titter in a story called “The Screaming” by Joe Konrath in his collection called Horror Stories. “The Screaming” is about two strung out bums in 1960s England who make their way to an abandoned countryside mansion in the hope of finding some loot they can sell. What they actually find chained up in the cellar is a wasted, suicidal, and vampiric Abraham Van Helsing.

I wouldn’t quite call this a perfect three-titter. At the end of Dracula, Van Helsing becomes a sort of grandfatherly mentor to Quincy, the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker. Konrath picks up the story by having other vampires wipe out the remaining humans from Dracula and then convert Quincy, who in turn converts Van Helsing, who now seems to be the last surviving vampire in the world. It’s not a bad premise, but let’s ask the question: Did it have to be Van Helsing? Not really. Any stranded vampire would do. But we get Van Helsing to tie in the original story and hopefully convey some of the famous tale’s mojo through osmosis. In Konrath’s defense, “The Screaming” was written for an anthology called The Many Faces of Van Helsing, so the fate of having a three-titter was sort of built into the assignment.

“The Screaming” isn’t a great story, but it’s not bad. And it’s not bad because Konrath knows how to keep things fun. He specializes in gore and sick, guilty laughter, and there’s plenty of it in this three-dollar story collection. Despite the three-titter, Konrath is the horror genre’s equivalent of 1990’s Total Recall. I’ll spare you the long story, but Konrath is also the poster boy for ebook-era self-publishing. His blog details his rise from obscurity to grossing six figures per month, and he offers a lot of advice on how to do the same. But if there’s one bit of wisdom I can pull from this Horror Stories collection, and maybe Konrath and Total Recall in general, it’s that fiction doesn’t have to be epic to succeed. It doesn’t have to be immortally crafted and painstakingly perfect. It just has to give people that one thing they want, and more often than not that one thing is fun.
This is William Van Winkle, and you can check out my short shorts again in about...two weeks.

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