With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.
Given how huge a Hollywood franchise the Terminator movies have become, it's easy to forget that the original The Terminator was a scrappy B-movie made by a writer-director whose only previous feature was a Piranha sequel. It's also hard to imagine (or remember, for those who experienced the movie in theaters firsthand) how the movie would have played without any preconceived notions about the characters and the storyline, being able to discover the basics of James Cameron's Terminator universe for the first time. Although the series is now known mainly for action sequences, special effects and (perhaps secondarily) sci-fi ideas, the original movie is a lean horror story for a good two-thirds, with the Terminator itself a perfect horror-movie villain.
Tracking down and brutally killing women with the same name (in this case, Sarah Connor) is a total horror-villain move, and Linda Hamilton's bubbly, oblivious Sarah is a total horror-movie heroine. I had forgotten about Ginger, Sarah's hapless roommate, and the relationship between Sarah and Ginger is natural and fun (it's also the only time in the entire series that Sarah has a connection with anyone who isn't part of the Skynet conspiracy/resistance). Without firm knowledge of what the Terminator is or why he's there, the attacks really are terrifying, and Schwarzenegger's minimalist performance makes them even scarier. Even Kyle Reese is an unknown factor at first, just as likely to kill Sarah as save her.
Eventually, of course, Cameron starts explaining things, Reese and Sarah fall for each other, and the movie turns into a more conventional chase narrative. Even that is handled well within limited resources, and Cameron continually builds suspense as the Terminator gets closer and closer. Later on the various Terminators will blow up everything in sight, but here the massacre in the police station really emphasizes how ruthless and amoral the Terminator is. Also, without the benefit of tons of later retcons, Sarah's life feels like it's really in danger. Looked at as the opening to a wide-ranging franchise, The Terminator sets up plenty of fascinating ideas and characters to explore later on. But on its own it remains a lean, propulsive thriller that grabs the audience and refuses to let go.