The Terminator (1984) Dir. James Cameron
Let’s start with a good-looking, spunky female protagonist. Now add a brooding, handsome loner with an amazing secret. And finally, top it off with a towering, unstoppable killer who seemingly can’t be destroyed by mortal men. Looks like we got ourselves a good old-fashioned “slasher” movie, right? Wrong. We got ourselves a Terminator.
The Terminator hit theatres thirty years ago this month. The story follows twenty-something diner waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) who ends up on the run from the Terminator (a pre-global box office domination Arnold Schwarzenegger). The cybernetic hit man has traveled from the year 2029 to snuff Sarah out. Her only true ally is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a soldier sent from the same year as the Terminator. Kyle tells Sarah of a horrible future where computers and machines are trying to wipe out humanity, but her son John leads the army fighting to keep mankind from extinction. If the machines can end her life in our present, they will have stopped the resistance before it started.
While most people agree it’s an excellent film, few would label The Terminator as a “horror” film. Ask anyone to describe it and the words “sci-fi”, “action”, “B-movie”, or “Ah-nuld” would come out of their mouths. But in the same way the title character has human flesh hiding a relentless robotic endoskeleton, The Terminator is a horror movie disguised as sci-fi/action film.
Director James Cameron says the idea for the movie came to him in a nightmare while he was working in Rome. He dreamt of the Terminator endoskeleton walking out of burning wreckage. It’s an image you could easily apply to 1980s horror icons like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, or Michael Myers. Cameron takes the typical horror duds, and like a skilled tailor, alters them out for his own purposes. Instead of a creepy rural area or shadowy forest, the majority of the film takes place in the nastiest, creepiest parts of downtown Los Angeles. Rather than being haunted by past misdeeds, Sarah Connor is cursed by events that have yet to occur. The Terminator has no machetes, chainsaws, or metal hooks, only guns. LOTS of guns. Cameron does keep the horror movie trope of skeptical law enforcement officials. There’s no pot-bellied, small town sheriff, but we get an entire station of protective, but clearly overmatched L.A.P.D. officers, who try in vain to take down the Terminator. One great twist that Cameron employs is making Sarah Connor a compelling, well-rounded character. Female leads in horror films are often fairly useless or merely perpetual scream machines. While Connor is initially in way over her head, as the film moves along she becomes more and more capable in a way that never seems unrealistic. She keeps pace with Reese and certainly proves her psychological and emotional mettle as the story plays out.
What I feel pushes The Terminator into the horror category is its look, sound, and atmosphere. Schwarzenegger was (and is) an imposing figure and in many scenes he was filmed from a lower angle, making him seem even bigger. This cranks up the Terminator’s already considerable intimidation factor. In addition, most of the movie takes place at night. Frame after frame is filled with shadows, the only light coming from street lamps, vehicles, and neon signs. Brad Fiedel’s score and the sound effects designers add another layer to the Terminator’s ruthless personality. And I would have to turn in my geek card if I didn’t mention the wonderful (and oftentimes bloody) make-up effects by late, great Stan Winston and his team. When you consider how low the budget was for The Terminator and how good it turned out to be, it seems unfair to call it a “B-movie”. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think of it as something of an independent picture.
Whether or not you agree with calling The Terminatora horror movie, a sci-fi film, or an action flick, odds are you’ll be entertained watching it. I think it is one of the best movies of the 1980s, regardless of what genre label you want to slap on it. The chase and action set pieces are great. It boasts a terrific cast and memorable characters. Finally, the pacing is just about perfect; there really are no wasted scenes in this movie. The Terminator proved to be a career launching pad for so many involved in its creation. And while he may not be your typical horror movie villain, the Terminator remains of the most iconic monstrosities to ever march onto a movie screen. When you’re making your annual list of Halloween flicks, be sure to add this one. Skynet would want it that way.
Andy Lacerte is an actor, movie geek a sports fan and "can make some great horchata". You can follow him on Twitter @AndyLacerte