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The Real Reason The Terminator Should Be Considered A Horror Movie

It would be tough to think of a more profound influence on modern science fiction or action movies than The Terminator, writer-director James Cameron's 1984 classic. Nobody expected the low-budget, grimy flick about a time-traveling killer robot who comes to modern-day L.A. to kill a waitress to set the world on fire, but here we are, still talking about it nearly four decades later. The movie made a massive star out of Arnold Schwarzenegger and spawned a multimedia franchise that's tougher to kill off than... well, you know. Fans could argue for days about whether The Terminator or its 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgment Day is the superior film — but we're not here to talk about that.

No, we're here to make the argument that in terms of genre, The Terminator gets routinely miscategorized. Oh, sure — it's not as if the film doesn't have science fiction elements, and nobody could disagree that Schwarzenegger was the biggest action star of his era. Think about it, though: In the movie, an attractive young woman named Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has her life thrown into disarray when a mysterious, unknown party begins targeting and brutally murdering women with the same name as her. Sarah tries to reach out to the police, but her stalker finds her first — only failing to kill her because of the intervention of another mysterious party, one who seems uniquely aware of the nature of the threat. Even he can only delay the inevitable, though; the hulking brute kills his way through anything and anyone standing in his way, until Sarah is left to face him, alone.

At its cold, mechanical heart, The Terminator is a horror movie. Furthermore, it is a specific type of horror movie — a subgenre that was wildly popular at the time of the film's release.

The Terminator belongs to a specific horror subgenre

That's right: The Terminator is a slasher flick, and it wasn't alone in hitting screens in 1984. A whole slew of slashers dropped that year, and at least three of those were highly notable: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter was the best entry of its entire series, Silent Night, Deadly Night caused a nationwide controversy while launching a profitable franchise, and A Nightmare on Elm Street reinvented the genre while launching an even more profitable (and much better) series.

"But Looper," we can hear you saying, "You can't peg The Terminator as a slasher flick just because it's centered on a cold, emotionless killing machine who hardly says two words, can't be stopped even when literally pumped full of bullets, and is single-mindedly focused on a specific target." And yes, we can also hear you trailing off in stunned realization that you just made our first point for us. Schwarzenegger's T-800 reminds us of nobody so much as Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees, minus the hockey mask and with a preference for firearms over machetes. Midway through the film, Sarah's protector, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) succinctly sums up the Terminator's threat, and see if his words couldn't just as easily apply to Mr. Voorhees: "That Terminator is out there. It can't be bargained with, it can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear, and it absolutely will not stop — ever — until you are dead."

For that matter, Reese himself manages to embody another slasher archetype: the guy who knows exactly what's going on, but who is apparently so freakin' crazy that nobody will listen to him (until it's too late, of course). Then, there's Sarah herself — a pretty excellent example of a trope so well-known that without it, a movie is pretty much disqualified from being called a slasher flick.

The Terminator has a final girl

This is the "Final Girl," who typically, well, let's check our list: has some connection to the killer that she's usually unaware of (check), manages to survive while everyone is dropping like flies around her (check), often has help from a male protagonist who is eventually killed (check), and is left alone to do battle with the killer at the end (check). Of course, most final girls abstain from any sexual activity throughout their respective films, but not every one checks every box.

That The Terminator has the bloody heart of a slasher film becomes glaringly apparent in the film's third act, as Sarah and Reese are openly pursued through the streets of L.A. by a (now mangled, grotesque-looking) Terminator with no help in sight. They seem to get the better of their pursuer by way of blowing up the truck he's chasing them in, but as the pair embrace and celebrate their victory, we see the Terminator — now with all of its organic material burned away, down to its terrifying, gleaming, metal skeleton — exiting the framing wreckage right behind them. Not only is this a great example of the "killer demasked in the third act" slasher trope, but it is almost certainly no coincidence that this shot is framed nearly identically to one near the conclusion of John Carpenter's Halloween, in which the seemingly-dispatched Michael Myers reveals himself to the audience (but not his target) to be alive and kicking in pretty much exactly the same way. The Terminator's subsequent pursuit of Sarah through a manufacturing plant, and its ultimate demise in a hydraulic press, is also cut with an increasingly frantic pace that recalls the final confrontations of too many slasher flicks to even list. 

Reddit agrees that The Terminator is a horror movie

When this topic was recently broached on Reddit, the denizens of the r/horror Subreddit near-uniformly shared our assessment. User PriestofJudas got the ball rolling with their post: "For as much of a definite action series as The Terminator is, the first film is a fantastically well made horror film. The T800, in his many shootouts, never feels like an action villain. The police shootout alone is shot like a horror scene [...] And then there's that penultimate moment when the steel skeleton rises from the fire [...] James Cameron took the framework of a slasher film and gave it a nice Sci-Fi sheen."

Users came out the woodwork to raise their hands in agreement. User makeitasadwarfer called The Terminator a "sci-fi homage to slasher films," noting that "all the story beats are there including a literal final girl." A slew of users recalled specific scenes that scared them out of their pants: user IrkenZim123 wrote that "[The Terminator] made me have nightmares, especially when the endoskeleton speed walked down the hall towards Kyle and Sarah," while user brrcs agreed that the "whole precinct slaughter sequence is absolutely terrifying."

It was left to user mahavishnunj, though, to sum it up: "You bet your ass it is [a horror movie]," they wrote. "Scared the hell out of me when I was a kid." It's all right there on the screen, folks: The Terminator is a slasher flick, one of the very best of its kind, dressed pretty convincingly in the skin of a sci-fi actioner. Now, about that Terminator versus T2 argument...