The heroine and her love interest run in terror from the unstoppable killer. It stalks them. Their death is its only motivation. What is hunting them? Is it a monster, an alien, a slasher from the ’80s, or some malevolent force? Does it even matter?
The scene written above describes countless horror movies. It also describes The Terminator. James Cameron created a villain that appeals to both action and horror audiences. This one doesn’t use machetes or blades, instead he uses automatic weapons, the most quick and lethal killing tool available.
Ruthless, unrelenting, and armed. That is scary. That is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of The Terminator. The Terminator is historic. Everyone knows this. But it’s James Cameron’s vision and story that fuses horror with action and makes it just as scary. However, the use of action sequences makes the project appeal to a larger target audience than a film solely relying on horror tropes.
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But what about the story makes it scary? The answer is the stalk. Stalking is key. It’s what monsters and vampires do. Freddy haunts the Elm Street kids in their dreams, Jason kills teens by the lake, and zombies chase the living. Stalking, the chase, the hunt, call it what you like, but that is what separates horror from action.
The Terminator stalks Sarah Conner, the heroine or final girl, and kills anyone in his way. Sarah and Kyle Reese are in constant peril and danger, facing an enemy much stronger and more deadly. The only difference is that he uses automatic weapons. In the movies, firearms are synonymous with action films. They’re used primarily to terminate, not torture or deliver a slower, more painful death as is usually reserved for horror fare.
From a story standpoint, it’s not as terrifying as Freddy’s glove, or Jigsaw’s contraptions, but the story structure is the same. The killer stalks and the protagonist flees. Even when destroyed, The Terminator comes back for one final scare. This couldn’t be more clear as the emotionless machine with red eyes stalks Sarah and Reese through the dark hallway amid the intense and ominous score from Brad Fiedel. Yet another horror hallmark.
The Terminator set the stage for Cameron to deliver Aliens, bigger, scarier, and simply, more. He put warriors, Michael Biehn primarily, in extreme scenarios where they’re on the run and up against nearly impossible odds and foes.
In the ’80s, James Cameron was the master of blending horror and action. The chase and peril delivers the horror, but the traditional use of firearms in American action films changes the perception and makes it more palatable to the general audience. The result, James Cameron’s first cinematic masterpiece!
So if you’re looking for a great nostalgic horror film, check out The Terminator.