At this point, THE TERMINTOR is something so ingrained in the pop culture subconscious, it’s impossible to imagine a time in which the concept seemed alien or farfetched to Hollywood. Every aspect of it, from the instantly recognizable theme music, to the intricately crafted time-travel script, to Stan Winton’s robotic exoskeleton design, to Arnold’s infamous “I’ll be back” line, seems like it’s just always existed. But I was recently reminded of just how unique and original THE TERMINATOR was when it opened to unsuspecting audiences in 1984.
Composer Brad Fidel was recently a guest on a special episode of The Milan Records Podcast with The Damn Fine Cast co-host and Blumhouse.com contributor Tony Giles, in honor of their recent remstered double LP release of the original TERMINATOR score and there was one interesting revelation I took away from the candid chat. Fidel confesses that one of the first screenings he saw of the completed film with a room full of studio executives didn’t exactly go over well. You can sense from the entire room that they really didn’t “get” it and were quite appalled by the excessive violence. I like to think the movie was just way ahead of its time, because Fidel was vacationing when it came out in theaters and came back to the States with the surprising news that THE TERMINATOR was a monster hit.
It got me thinking. It’s the freakin’ TERMINATOR! As a wide-eyed cinema loving kid, I loved both this franchise and the ALIEN series. I recall seeing TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY as a midnight screening the Thursday before its official release date and it was a tremendous event. Back then, I’d always loved the bigger, badder, more action packed sequels, so ALIENS and TERMINATOR 2 were top of my list in terms of favorites. Now, as an adult, while I still love those sequels, I rather prefer the first TERMINATOR and ALIEN. I rewatched THE TERMINATOR this week trying to put myself in the shoes of those (arguably uptight) studio execs that were horrified by what they saw ahead of the general public, proving that they’re often completely clueless to what people will like. And it struck me…. THE TERMINATOR has the same dour feel of a tradition 80’s “slasher” horror movie.
Let’s think about this. At this point, cinemas were getting flooded with slasher knock off after slasher knock off. Granted, everyone knew that HALLOWEEN was the daddy of them all, but once FRIDAY THE 13TH successfully capitalized on what HALLOWEEN started by upping the body count and gore quotient, every major studio was looking to lay claim over some dubious holiday and insert a serial killer into it. By 1984, the “slasher” cycle had practically already run its course and there were horror movies coming out almost weekly! The one that saved, and in essence sustained this particular sub-genre through the end of the ’80s, was Wes Craven’s little film A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
James Cameron was a creator and artist working on similar low-budget films for Roger Corman. It wasn’t necessarily the “slasher” movies, but he was helping design ship interiors and monsters for things like GALAXY OF TERROR, FORBIDDEN WORLD and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. He even painted the New York City skyline for shots in John Carpenter’s 1981 feature ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. As someone that’s gone on to prove that he knows (and loves) movies, Cameron was soaking in and learning every aspect of every one of those productions. So his epic low budget time travel movie about a cyborg from the future sent back in time to wipe out the mother of his enemy’s leader doesn’t seem like much of a stretch from what could have come out of the Corman world in that era.
The difference is the execution of this story. Think about it. An unstoppable, hulking man is systematically stalking and hunting women with the name Sarah Connor. He has no free-will, thought, guilt or remorse. He is (in this case literally) a machine. One by one, he goes after these women and brutally murders them (and anyone else that gets in his way) until he is faced with the one person that has to overcome her fears and stands up to be the future leader of the resistance. (Or in this case, the “final girl.”)
Even as a kid, the matter-a-fact nature of the killings bothered me a bit. But they’re supposed to! Murders are nasty and ugly. They’re supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. But as I watched it, it didn’t feel too far off, structurally, from what was going on in horror movies from around that same time period. Arnold’s TERMINATOR confronts a trio of punks in the opening and takes them out for their clothes. (Standard opening kill of unsuspecting teens.) Before we hit the 10 minute mark, he kills poor Dick Miller, the gun shop owner to claim all his weapons. (Dick Miller is the red herring early kill. Basically the “Crazy Ralph” type that needs to be offed in the first act.) And then begins his rampage on his targets, people that all has a similar purpose and reason for their execution. For Jason, it’s someone invading his camp grounds; for Harry Warden, because they’re partying in the mines on Valentine’s Day; for Micheal Myers, it’s Halloween; and for THE TERMINATOR, it’s as simple as they all have the same name.
*Side-note: if you’d like to see a freaky serial killer thriller about a killer that chooses his victims randomly via the phonebook, check out Bill Lustig’s RELENTLESS.
What these people in that early screening probably focused on were the “slasher” film elements, the things that were getting parents’ groups riled up and causing a ruckus (and also bringing in a ton of box office dollars). What they were missing was the love story between Sarah and Kyle. They were missing the fantastical sci-fi time travel adventure. The probability for a full-blown franchise! The bankability of a giant Austrian guy that could barely speak English without his thick accent! This man was destined to become a huge Hollywood star! They all saw a low budget dirty little “slasher” movie. And a successful one at that! It gives us all the things that the good “slasher” movies deliver on: tight pacing, a thrilling chase (especially in the finale), a cool monster, and a great leading adversary to stop that monster.
Good thing all those execs in that first screening were wrong! Because the rest, as they say, is history…