Sunday, June 23, 2013

Can We Talk About The Terminator?

Hello, literate blog readers! This is the first part of a new Sunday series I'm starting called Can We Talk About? where we can discuss topics away from movie reviews and lists. I don't think you'll ever be able to escape me talking about movies, but this is a more free-range zone where broader topics can be covered.

For instance, how

The Terminator is a Slasher Movie

Warning: This article contains spoilers for a large number of 80's movies and let's face it, you can't get mad. The Statute of Limitations has long since run out on these.

I watched James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) for the first time a couple months ago and found it inexplicably familiar. It was familiar for the obvious fact that I'd heard it quoted in just about every TV show, movie, book, article, and dentistry publication in existence. But beyond that, I realized that the film was laid on a framework very familiar to me - an 80's slasher movie.

Now this is entirely possible, because the slasher boom had been in full force since 1980 and experienced its greatest popularity in the four years following Friday the 13th. And, while the film clearly isn't a full-blooded slasher flick (despite my sensationalist leanings in the title), it hews closely to the established format, but with an extended third act.

Now, I'm not going to just state my case and tell you what to believe. That's not fair to you, for I am certain you are a bright and distinguished individual. I mean, you're reading this blog. Of course you are. For you, dear reader, I have assembled empirical evidence showing The Terminator's roots in my beloved genre.

Note: When talking about killers in general, I will use the pronoun "he" to expedite things though I am well aware that females can and do make absolutely fabulous slasher villains.

The Silent Killer

A key figure in the slasher movies of yore is the mute killer who slays teens without speaking a word. Generally this is done to dehumanize the killer and make him feel more like the pure embodiment of evil. It is also used to increase tension, hide the killer's identity, or to rip off Halloween.

In The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger's character does speak (see: "I'll be back"), but his entire speaking role is limited to just 16 lines making 17 total sentences. That's actually, believe it or not, less lines than Jason has in the Friday the 13th series (He speaks in the original as a child and in Jason Goes to Hell when possessing the body of a police officer).

He mainly just shoots things.

The Indestructible Villain

Another facet of a slasher villain's evilness is his inability to die. You can stab him, shoot him, drown him, and blow him up yet he still relentlessly chases you down.

The Terminator is much the same way. Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese think they have defeated him with a giant explosion, but their celebratory embrace is interrupted when he rises like a phoenix from the ashes.

And after being supposedly defeated after Kyle's sacrifice of his life, the Terminator exoskeleton - with all his flesh having long since burned away - still implacably hunts down its target.

The Cheesy 80's Score

Even the best of the best horror films have their flaws. Many early slasher movies act as a time capsule for the year they were released, and the scores hold up the least under modern scrutiny. Charles Berstein's compositions from A Nightmare on Elm Street feel more like deep cuts on a Duran Duran album (though I admittedly love both of those things and own the entire score) and the opening for Friday the 13th Part 3 features a now legendary disco version of the theme song.

Just watch this scene from The Terminator and try to tell me it could take place in any year other than 1984. The music in the club is forgivable as a sign of the times, but when it makes the shift into the actual score music, it is clear that the snail trail of 80's kitsch was ineradicable.

Themed Killings

While many slasher villains are out for revenge (Freddy Krueger kills the children of the people who trapped him in a burning building), there are a range of themes available like holidays (the only holiday that doesn't feature a mysterious rash of killings seems to be Arbor Day), anniversaries of your death (Leslie Vernon in Behind the Mask satirized this tendency), or just being bored (Jason in the later sequels).

In The Terminator's case, the victims are all named Sarah Connor. Arnold mows down a whole crop of Sarah Connors in the order they're listed in the phone book because he has orders to eradicate the mother of his greatest enemy, John Connor.

Sex Equals Death

One of the most important rules in the horror universe, as expounded by Randy in Scream: If you have sex, you will die.

Kyle Reese has been sent back in time to save Sarah Connor's life, thus ensuring that her son John is born and can lead the rebels to victory. Unfortunately, he is not told that he is also John Connor's father and once he falls in love with, makes love to, and impregnates Sarah Connor, he's a goner.

To coin a nifty phrase

The Final Girl

This is incontestably the single most consistent element in the entire slasher genre. While a whole slew of nubile hotties might be mowed down beforehand, the one person to escape the bloodbath alive is female. Pretty much always. And if a man survives, it is only because a girl has also managed to stay alive. It's the way of the world, guys. Women are in charge.

A brief pause to reflect on how incredible Jamie Lee Curtis is.

Enter Sarah Connor. She kicks butt, takes names, chews bubblegum, and lives to tell the tale.

Improvised Weaponry

Once it comes down the showdown between the Final Girl and the Killer, it has been a long night for everybody. Often the Final Girl will find herself up a creek without a paddle or, more likely, hiding in a closet without a shotgun. Time to improvise. Ginny (above) went the pitchfork route, but other notables are Alice Hardy in the kitchen with a frying pan (Friday the 13th), and Jamie Lee Curtis giving Michael Myers everything she's got with a knitting needle, an unbent clothes hanger, and Activia yogurt.

The Terminator's resident Final Girl uses a hydraulic press to finally defeat her robotic stalker once and for all.

The Big Finale

Especially in the more supernatural slasher movies, the villain needs to be returned from whence he came and the big setpiece is usually a vital location in the killer's life. For Jason, it's the lake where he drowned. For Freddy it's the boiler room where he killed his children. And many of Michael Myers' climactic showdowns take place in his childhood home.

In The Terminator, the big ending setpiece is, appropriately, a factory full of machinery.

The Spawning of a Huge Franchise

So maybe it's not so big as Jason at his bloatiest, but you get the point.

So does The Terminator have its place in the great slasher pantheon? Well, no. But it is undeniably influenced by one of the most culturally important (for better or for worse) cinematic phenomena of the 1980's.

Word Count: 1241

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