Why The Terminator is a horror classic

As James Cameron's The Terminator turns 30, Ryan looks at how its horror overtones made it a classic...

Things were not going well for James Cameron in the spring of 1982. He was just five days into what was supposed to be his debut as a director, the low-budget horror sequel Piranha II: The Spawning, and the project had already gone sour.

Producer Ovidio Assonitis had no intention of letting Cameron make the film his own way (Assonitis had a track record of firing directors and taking over projects himself), and before long the director found himself stuck in Rome, jobless, and struck down with a fever. It was then that Cameron had the nightmare which would change the course of his career.

He dreamt of a horrifying metal being, clawing its way towards him out of a sheet of fire, clutching a pair of kitchen knives. It was the seed that would eventually become The Terminator – a low-budget hit which launched the career of both Cameron and title star Arnold Schwarzenegger, and marked the beginning of a franchise that is still going 30 years later.

Although primarily a sci-fi action film, The Terminator is shot through with a wide streak of horror. Every frame of Cameron’s movie, it seems, is haunted by the dream which spawned it. 

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Cameron’s premise is very much a twist on the slasher genre established by such films as Halloween and Friday The 13th, and the director had those genre touchstones in mind when he conceived The Terminator’s plot.

“My contemporaries were all doing slasher-horror movies,” Cameron once said. “John Carpenter was the guy I idolised the most. He made Halloween for $30,000 or something. That was everyone’s break-in dream, to do a stylish horror movie. It was a very slasher film type image. And it really was the launching pad for the story.”

To the slasher genre, Cameron added a sci-fi twist: The Terminator isn’t a supernatural entity or a maniac in a mask, but a cyborg sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor – an ordinary young woman who will one day give birth to the leader of a human resistance movement. 

Like Alien five years earlier, The Terminator is unusual in that it gives the killer top billing. Looking back at the finished film, it’s not hard to see why Cameron did this: like the robot in the director’s dream, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg is a singular creation. Slow-moving, unfeasibly strong and seemingly indestructible, he’s nothing less than a modern incarnation of the grim reaper, and there’s scarcely a character in the film who isn’t killed or injured by the T-800 in his pursuit of Linda Hamilton’s protagonist – criminal psychologist Dr Silberman (Earl Boen), a character akin to the know-it-all psychiatrist from the final act of Psycho, is one notable exception.

In the rush of action Cameron flings at the screen, it’s easy to overlook the nightmarish nature of Sarah Connor’s situation. Initially an unassuming waitress at a Los Angeles diner, she finds her life torn apart in the space of a single evening. While still at work, she learns that a murderer is going around the city, killing everyone in the phone book who goes by the name of Sarah Connor. A few hours later, she realises that she’s next on the list.

It’s worth pausing here to note how powerfully Cameron captures downtown Los Angeles circa 1984. Coldly lit and seemingly on the path to ruin, it’s a tough, beaten-down place, full of world-weary cops and homeless people bewildered by bright lights. The Terminator – and Kyle Reese, sent into the past by resistance leader John Connor to protect his mother – quietly drift through this world of seedy clubs and tatty flop houses; the city’s malaise is such that they’re both able to get away with all sorts of crimes without anybody noticing. While the Terminator goes around killing everyone he meets (starting with a gang of punks, from whom he gets his immediately-recognisable get-up), Kyle Reese steals a homeless man’s trousers, a pair of Nike trainers from a department store, and even a shotgun from a careless policeman’s squad car. 

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The opening act shrewdly leaves Kyle and the T-800‘s agendas unclear. Cinemagoers in 1984 who’d read or seen little of The Terminator before its release would have probably been unaware of who these characters were or what they were up to. Like Sarah Connor, who sees Reese lurking on a street corner and shudders at the sight of him, we could assume that he’s just as much of a maniac as the T-800 is.

The Terminator, meanwhile, is going around slaughtering people in true slasher movie style. Sarah’s Walkman-obsessed flatmate Ginger (Bess Motta) is a murder victim straight out of a Friday The 13th sequel; distracted by her music and her randy boyfriend, she doesn’t even realise the T-800 is in her apartment until it’s far, far too late. (Interestingly, Cameron has fun subverting the slasher movie template later, where the Final Girl gets to sleep with the leading man and lives to tell the tale.)

It’s only at the (superbly staged) confrontation in a night club called Tech Noir that the truth is revealed. Kyle prevents the Terminator from executing Sarah Connor with a superbly timed shotgun blast or five, thus revealing the T-800‘s indestructible nature and providing the first indication of his own true agenda: he’s Sarah’s protector.

That nightclub shootout marks the start of a relentless pursuit through Los Angeles which barely lets up until the closing credits. Cameron shows us time and again that the police are helpless in the face of the Terminator’s armoured chassis and accuracy with a machine gun. This demolition of a societal pillar like the police is a common tactic among horror writers and filmmakers, and it’s something Cameron would do again in Terminator 2, where its killer machine disguises itself as an ordinary Californian beat cop. 

Fittingly for a film inspired by a nightmare, The Terminator uses dream sequences to expand the scope of its story. The ambition Cameron shows, given his low budget, is worth noting here. The director could have saved money by only mentioning the future war in conversation, but instead, he goes a step further and shows us what it actually looks like.

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Both Kyle and Sarah have nightmares about the future, where an artificially intelligent computer called Skynet has taken over and humans are hunted down by machines. These sequences do much to heighten the film’s oppressive tone, and also establish what the stakes are for Kyle and Sarah: if the latter’s killed, then the fate of humanity is sealed.

In The Terminator’s final third, Cameron wrings every last ounce of tension from his merciless cyborg. Denuded of its fleshy disguise, the T-800 reveals itself as a gleaming metal skeleton, brilliantly designed by Stan Winston. Even some admittedly dated stop-motion effects don’t detract from the power of this image – by now, the T-800 really does look like the grim reaper, albeit without the hooded cloak or the scythe. 

Even when its abdomen is blown to smithereens by Kyle Reese’s improvised explosive – a detonation powerful enough to snuff out poor, long-suffering Kyle in the process – the Terminator carries on trying to get to Sarah, and it’s here, as the T-800 drags the remains across a factory floor towards its wounded target, that the film catches up with the nightmare image which inspired it.

The Terminator might be an action movie first and foremost, and also a compellingly-told science fiction story about a future where machines have turned the tables on their masters, but it’s also a horror story at its heart. The evidence is all there in that sequence of the Terminator clawing its way towards a helpless woman: the T-800’s lack of compassion, pity and pain; a will to ceaselessly carry out its mission, no matter how much it’s damaged. The Terminator is, as Cameron once put it, “death rendered in steel.”

Through a mixture of quick wit, determination and luck, Sarah becomes the only character to look the Terminator in its crimson eyes and survive. But even here, the nightmare isn’t over: the human race will have its saviour, but Judgment Day still looms on the horizon.