James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) is a movie that has been a regular part of my viewing rotation since 1991, when I was on the cusp of age six. Usually I am incapable of having an objective opinion on things that entered my life before the age of ten, which is why I probably won’t ever review any of the original Star Wars films on this blog; they are just too deeply ingrained in me to have any sense of perspective. For whatever reason, that is not the case with this film. I’ve watched the film through many different lenses over the last couple of decades, but this time I’ve assessed the film as an 80s horror/slasher piece.
How effective is Terminator as a slasher? If grouped with other films in that genre, it’s probably the best. By like, a lot. A Nightmare on Elm Street was held back by pedestrian acting, Hellraiser was stymied by a small budget, and most of the other iconic franchises were outright horrible or played purely for camp. Terminator is better funded, acted, paced, scored, and edited than those other films. Clive Barker and Wes Craven are delightful creators, but there’s a reason they are considered charming genre yarn-spinners while Terminator’s director has a license to do whatever the hell he wants.
This is arguably the most derivative film in the Cameron canon. That statement seems to deflate my case considering the preceding paragraph, but let me explain: James Cameron is aping John Carpenter (Progenitor of the slasher genre!) here, and he does it to the hilt. I was very unsurprised when I learned that Cameron had worked in the special effects unit of Carpenter’s Escape From New York, because while this film lacks the snarky ur-libertarian message of Escape, it’s seasoned almost identically. Cameron makes great use of Brad Fiedel’s moody yet minimalist electronic score, peppered with gloriously ridiculous Pat Benatar-esque pop rock courtesy of Tané McClure. Even Cameron’s knight in shining armor, Kyle Reese, dovetails into the Carpenter ethos; before he’s on the screen for even five minutes we see him swiping pants from a homeless person, assaulting cops while appropriating their firearms, and plundering Nike Vandals from a department store. Somewhere, Snake Plissken is smiling.
|Remain calm officer I'm the white hat in this film also have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?|
Terminator-as-slasher holds up when the plot structure is examined: We have a girl next door in Sarah Conner who is unaware of the hidden strength she possesses, and she’s being hunted by an absolutely unstoppable, utterly nightmarish behemoth played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Her sexually aggressive roommate and boyfriend (who is apparently the most badass human being in the world for lasting several minutes in a barehanded brawl with a Terminator) are brutally killed by the monster. Conventional institutions either can’t perceive the monster, or they are utterly incapable of stopping him. In fact, the Terminator’s one-man assault on a police station is one of the more horrifying things I’ve ever seen. Whether one sees the police as protectors of civility or dispensers of arbitrary brutality, it is universally accepted that they are the ultimate expression of the Establishment’s authority. The Terminator trudges into a station with over thirty officers and murders every last one of them because he knows his quarry is in the building.
The slasher theme is reinforced by the increasingly inhuman transformation the eponymous cyborg goes through. Some alterations are subtle such as the loss of eyebrows. Others are more macabre such as the infamous scene where an animatronic Arnold carves a shotgun pellet-damaged eye out to reveal a glimpse of the machine beneath. At the end of the movie the flesh is burned off the Terminator entirely, and the protagonists have to face a gleaming and murderous fire-hot metal endoskeleton.
|Beauty is only skin deep. So is your blood.|
The Terminator is more than just a slasher flick, though. It cross-pollinates itself with other genre flavors, including post-apocalyptic sci-fi, hard boiled exploitation, and noir cyberpunk. The mounting fear of a horrific cyborg’s methodical slaughter is broken up by electrifying car chases which see Reese and the machine trade shotgun fire while barreling down city sidewalks in the middle of the night, headlights off. And after all the carnage and destruction, Sarah is granted a bittersweet ending. She is left with absolutely nothing of her old life, pregnant with a child she will have to raise on her own, and armed only with the knowledge that it’s up to her to train this unborn child to possibly win a war against extermination after the whole world burns. Damn right there’s a storm coming.
There’s a reason this film is in every $5 bin and on AMC every other weekend; it’s a classic, meat and potatoes thriller. While the 80s were saddled with middling to bad action films (many of them starring Arnold Schwarzenegger), Cameron is able to simultaneously elevate, compliment, and explode the slasher paradigm. If you like your melodramas lean, mean, and with heart, this is mandatory viewing. A.
This review was published in a format that may or may not contain Secret References to both Batman and Doctor Who.
Next: The Princess Bride (1987). Get Psyched!