I have had a rather unusual view on The Terminator for the longest time. I do consider it James Cameron’s best movie, and the best of this franchise. These are for reasons of pacing and innovative filmmaking. Yet, what I mainly consider this film as is not so much a science fiction movie, but essentially a techno-slasher film. You’ve got a hulking, invincible juggernaut of a killer stalking and hunting down an innocent young woman. That’s a bare bones plot description for both The Terminator and a Friday The 13th sequel. The vibe of the movie is very relentless and evokes a very techno-horror hybrid ideology. Beyond that quirk of perception, I do have many things to praise this film for that I feel James Cameron severely abandoned afterwards.
In the post-apocalyptic future of 2029, SkyNet, a super computer defense system wages a losing war against a human resistance which it is intent on exterminating. In their desperation, the machines send an indestructible cyborg known as The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) back in time to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the woman whose unborn son will become mankind’s only hope. In hopes of preserving humanity’s future, the human resistance sends soldier Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) back in time as well to protect Sarah. But does he even stand a chance against the most unstoppable killing machine ever created?
Obviously, The Terminator has been widely praised since its release, and so, there’s not much I have to tell you that hasn’t already been said. Regardless, most of these reviews are about what these films mean to me and the nature of cinema, in general. James Cameron previously worked in the special effects world working on numerous lower budgeted pictures, but after a great deal of hard work and determination he scored his first major directorial job with this film. The budget was tight, but with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s growing star power from the Conan films, there was a lot of credibility and weight put behind this. Still, it wasn’t an easy task getting it made. The restrictions of budget and resources really did work towards the film’s benefit. It forced Cameron to be innovative and a bit of a guerilla filmmaker. It’s a perfect example of better creativity through adversity. As I mentioned in my Aliens review, I think once Cameron got a big budget and a lot of freedom as a filmmaker, he lost that edge and began to indulge in overly long films with far laxer pacing and storytelling techniques. He was still innovative in the technical realm, but not so much in the creative one where tight storytelling was concerned.
What I find to be so intelligent and original with what Cameron did with The Terminator is how he maintained tension and a tight cohesion of the plot. The main exposition in the film is dealt with in the midst of a car chase. The excitement and danger are high, keeping the audience intently invested in every second, and Cameron uses that time for Kyle Reese to impart a great deal of exposition about himself, the T-800, and the future war. In the vast majority of films, the exposition scene is a slow paced, quiet scene that is regularly the most derided scene in the film from the director’s perspective. Cameron changes that all up, and makes it one of the most captivating scenes by melding it with an intense chase sequence. From there, even the slower, character building scenes maintain some degree of urgency or dramatic electricity to never allow the film to lose your interest or attention. If not in the hands of James Cameron’s innovative and visionary filmmaking talent, I could surely see this movie slipping down into a B-grade sci-fi film that you’d see premiere on late night Cinemax. Believe me, those films do exist, and were heavily inspired by this far superior film. Having the right director at the helm can make a severe difference in whether a movie is brilliance or cheap exploitation fare.
This film is expertly shot with strong, sharp focus on every detail and bit of action. The night scenes are definitely gritty creating a dangerous edge and energy that wholly serves the tone and vibe of the picture. It brilliantly reflects the “tech noir” theme of the movie, showing us the dark side of technology. Cameron and his director of photography Adam Greenberg do a marvelous job all around. All of the action is shot with skill, dramatic weight, and great storytelling ability. Just in the way it is shot, The Terminator looks and feels like a 1984 film, and in all the best ways. It might have its rough edges here and there, but they work so excellently towards the energy of the picture. Overall, you can see the great, deliberate insert and close-up shots that establish and enhance the mood and tension of the film. The slow motion sequences are beautifully and masterfully done creating so much tension and dramatic anticipation. The editing of Mark Goldblatt is some of the tightest, most dead-on-the-mark work I’ve ever seen. There’s not an extraneous frame anywhere in the runtime of this movie. Every shot has purpose and cohesion to the kinetic and emotional beats of the story. Action directors of today should go back and watch this movie to see how you competently direct, shoot, and edit an action sequence. The car chases are great, but the entire police station massacre is insanely tense and masterfully shot and edited. It’s a major action set piece of the film, and it could not have been executed any better than it was. Yet, the climax is able to top that with a long series of action sequences from a car chase to the explosions to the final industrial plant confrontations. It continues to hammer home the seemingly indestructible nature of the Terminator as it continues to come back from one fiery explosion after another. It’s a frightening action climax where the monster simply will not die while our heroes continue to suffer more and more injuries hindering their ability to continue running away.
Michael Biehn is absolutely amazing as Kyle Reese. What strikes me first is the weathered, war torn quality of his performance. Reese does seem like a guy who has been through the darkest parts of hell on earth with both the psychological and physical scars to show for it. Biehn also has great physical intensity such as during the initial car chase where Reese is imparting the exposition to Sarah. There’s a depth of urgency, fear, and heart with every word he delivers. It creates someone that’s not just an action centric soldier, but a man with a solid core of humanity. The pain of Kyle Reese is deep seeded, and the trauma and pain that he has endured comes through in the texture of Biehn’s performance. This is a guy who does initially seem like an intimidating threat, almost serial killer like, but that intensity and frayed exterior are molded into a fascinating, sympathetic character that an audience deeply cares for before too long. Biehn’s romantic chemistry with Linda Hamilton is wonderful, and the tenderness that forms between them makes this so much more than just a testosterone fueled action picture. It has a lot of depth that has always been a strength of James Cameron’s films. He always seems to create very dimensional lead characters which enhance the nature of the films they populate. Why Michael Biehn’s acting career didn’t soar to greater heights after this movie is a mystery to me. It certainly did for Hamilton and Schwarzenegger.
It goes without saying that this was one of Arnold’s defining roles. While Conan the Barbarian was a big success, this propelled him into a whole new level of stardom. What he does at The Terminator was instantly iconic with only eighteen lines of dialogue. The deliberate movement and restrained mannerisms he devised for this Terminator create a cold, threatening, dominating screen presence. I have seen other lower grade actors attempt to approximate this sort of robotic performance, but Arnold just had something special. It’s the whole package from his size and build to the choice of punk or leather attire to the calculating way he surveys a scene. You can view a methodical yet relentless intelligence behind everything the Terminator does, and Schwarzenegger just hit it perfectly on the mark. There’s not a moment where you don’t take him as a serious, menacing threat, and after that is all solidly established by him, it carries over seamlessly when the flesh is burnt off and it’s just Stan Winston’s animatronic endoskeleton. While almost everyone seems to love when Arnold does the cheesy action films, I feel his best work is in the more serious roles because it creates a challenge for him. He has to dedicate himself to a far stronger character, and create something that stands out in a dramatic fashion. There are a lot of cheesy action heroes out there, but not many who can pull off the really serious, iconic roles such as Conan, the Terminator, or Dutch in Predator. Arnold can do both equally well, and that’s much of why he’s the action movie legend that he is today.
This film was especially pivotal to Linda Hamilton’s career, and the reasons why are vibrantly evident. While, as Sarah Connor, we see a great deal of panic and fear, it is all mixed in with a genuine sense of humanity. Sarah’s an average woman thrust into an extraordinarily intense and dangerous scenario, but ultimately, we see her inner strength shine through. When you first see her as a lowly waitress, you could never imagine she could come to survive and fight through this frightening, lethal experience with as much resilience as she ultimately displays. Hamilton gives us the full spectrum of emotion in an impressive dimensional performance that also adds in a layer of romanticism. The build up to the love scene between Sarah and Kyle is beautifully touching, and would be able to squeeze tears out of the more emotional audience members. That tenderness and depth of love and passion triggers the greater strength of the film that I mentioned before. It is a love scene that is not there for the sake of skin and titillation, but for the sake of love itself. At the film’s end, you can see the subtle seeds of what we will see Sarah become in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. In this film, Linda Hamilton is absolutely excellent giving us a sympathetic and strong character that stands the test of time.
And I have to mention the excellent performances of Lance Henriksen and the late Paul Winfield. Henriksen has some great humorous dialogue that is just enough off-kilter to be memorable. We’re so used to seeing Henriksen playing rather dark, disturbed characters, and so, it is a wonderful treat seeing him enjoy this upbeat, charismatic character. Winfield was always a stellar, sophisticated acting talent, and while Lieutenant Traxler has his streetwise qualities, he is a compassionate and intelligent commanding officer. He strikes the perfect balance between entertaining, charming character and capable, seasoned cop. Many films like this would paint all the cops as unlikeable fools, somewhat like Dr. Silberman is (appropriately enough), but instead, Cameron maintains his sense of humanity in these characters along with casting superb actors to realistically embody those qualities.
While the animatronics, stop motion, and optical effects work largely appears dated next to today’s sleeker digital effects, especially with the work done in the sequels, I think that gritty, rough edged effects work here benefits the overall style and feel of this movie. The stop motion animation in the climax evokes more of that techno-horror feeling taking the scary skeleton of the haunted house and meshing it with a dark science fiction menace. Stan Winston did an amazing job with all the physical effects further cementing his stature as an effects wizard and master of creature designs. Having clocked in stunning work with the Terminator, Predator, and Alien franchises, his quickly earned legendary status is no surprise. The visual effects were handled by Fantasy II, and for a mid-80s low budget science fiction picture, they did an excellent job. Combined with Cameron’s vibrant vision, they achieved something that really grabbed audiences’ attention at that time, and truly captivated their imagination. The brief future war sequences are stellar. The only thing I ever mark as a negative is the use of rear screen projection, which Cameron would use again in Aliens. It just never looks convincing, especially when compared to good quality blue screen composites. Regardless of that, these were very eye-opening effects in 1984, and they entirely serve the film’s dark, gritty tone.
The synthesizer based score done by Brad Fiedel encapsulates that tense, dark atmosphere of The Terminator. The compositions alone are excellent, and the main theme has become iconic. The use of the metallic percussion reflects the cold, mechanical heart of the Terminator, and gives us a rather chilling, ominous feeling whenever it appears. So many other cues are done with great feel for the intensity of their respective sequences maintaining the weight of the drama and action. Many instances again evoke a high tension horror atmosphere such as whenever the Terminator is seconds away from killing Sarah. The synthesizer sound perfectly fits for a 1984 tech-noir action film as it simply enhances that oppressive technological theme, and is an obvious sign of the times. However, it can get elegant and beautiful during the aforementioned love scene. Fiedel takes that heavy, almost claustrophobic type main theme, and rearranges it into a piano love theme that is sad, touching, and wonderfully gorgeous. While Fiedel would blow it out of the water with his work on Terminator 2: Judgment Day, what he does here is a solid, excellent fit for the kinetic energy and tense danger that is so tightly wrapped in this film while highlighting the depth that the film has to offer.
The Terminator is really amazingly well written. As I said, Cameron is able to raise the concept above the standard action movie fare by injecting dimension and emotional depth into his story and characters. They live and breathe as realistic people that an audience can attach themselves to, and that makes the rather fantastical story gritty, believable, and gripping. The dialogue is honest and real showcasing distinct personalities that leave a lasting impression, and with the stellar casting, it couldn’t be any more pitch perfect. It’s not just those iconic one-liners from Schwarzenegger or Biehn that make it great. It’s every nuanced quality of the characters and depth of the story being told that have made The Terminator a classic. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done movies with far more quotable dialogue, but they do not match the filmmaking quality and intelligence of this one. That is all due to the innovative creativity and artistic talent of James Cameron.
James Cameron had a vibrant vision for this movie, and was intensely driven to realize it on film. While he hasn’t lost vision, I do think he’s lost a number of exciting qualities that made The Terminator so exceptional. He used to be able to tell amazing and captivating stories in innovative and exciting ways. Even if the storytelling rhythm and cohesion became more lax in his subsequent films, we were still treated to things we hadn’t seen before, and were given stories that ignited our imaginations while still touching us deep in our hearts. The Terminator is an excellent example of what made Cameron a fascinating and awesome filmmaker for many years. However, as his budgets got bigger and his ego became overinflated, I just think he stopped caring about the story and characters, and was just more enamored with the evolution of visual effects and filmmaking technology. I would really wonder if someone gave James Cameron a $6.4 million budget today, could he still make a film as well made as this one.
This if my favorite film of the entire Terminator franchise, and I consider it the best film James Cameron has made. This is for the reasons of the tightness of the storytelling where not a scene, moment, or frame is wasted. While even Terminator 2 took the time it needed to tell the story it had to tell, I just love the relentless momentum of this movie. It has its character building scenes wrapped up nicely between and within the action sequences. No part of the film ever drags on. Coupled with all the amazing talents from the actors to the special effects mastery to the cinematography and editing, The Terminator is a lightning strike of stardom and awesomeness. I take nothing away from its 1991 blockbuster sequel, but there is just something so riveting about the lean and smart storytelling in this film that sets it apart for me. It’s that guerilla filmmaker mentality of better creative through adversity and budgetary restraints that sparks my love for The Terminator. Cameron showed the talent he had despite the restrictions of the production, and made a big impact when this hit theatres. Everyone who worked on the film believed strongly in it and Cameron’s ability to make it happen. It’s that ambition and hard working dedication which can set the exceptional filmmakers apart from all the others. This is a film that should be on every action and science fiction film fan’s must-see list. And while it’s not my favorite Schwarzenegger movie, it is one of his best.
In 2011, they remade this movie. I have not seen it, and I don’t need to. The original Fright Night from director Tom Holland needed no improvement or reinvention. It’s an excellent and immensely entertaining vampire film that mixes enough horror with humor. It has a wonderfully seductive vampire in Chris Sarandon and a wonderful lead in William Ragsdale. As many of the best 1980s vampire films did, it delivers on both solid horror and fun humor in a well balanced blend.
For young Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale), nothing could be better than an old horror movie late at night. However, when he sees the new neighbors bringing a coffin into the house next door, Charley starts to believe his handsome and charming neighbor Jerry Dandridge (Chris Sarandon) is a vampire. Unfortunately, Dandridge knows that Charley is aware of his secret, and attempts to kill him. Charley then becomes deadest to destroy the monster, Of course, nobody believes his wild claims – not the police, not his weird friend “Evil” Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), and not his girlfriend Amy (Amanda Bearse). Ultimately, Charley turns to his beloved horror television show host and cinematic vampire killer Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall) who is also skeptical, but as the terrifying events unfold, he and Charley must stand side-by-side to battle the fanged undead for their own survival.
Fright Night is such a strong movie. Every artistic element really forges together solidly. Most importantly, the cast is brilliantly put together. Writer / director Tom Holland really grabbed up some amazing talents. Firstly, William Ragsdale has so much enthusiasm for the role of Charley Brewster. He really sells every passionate, manic, and heartfelt aspect of the character. Right from the start, he’s purely relatable as this loveable, scared teenager. While playing Charley as an entirely straight, panicked character, Ragsdale is able to illicit so much humor amongst his co-stars. His intensely fearful behavior purely feeds into Ed & Amy’s perspective that he’s gone right out of his mind, and makes for a wonderfully funny juxtaposition. Anyone going to see this movie could easily put themselves in Charley’s place, and that’s really the perfection of this movie. Anyone else in Charley’s position would likely be frightened out of their mind, and look for desperate solutions to this lethal supernatural threat. Still, it’s Ragsdale’s sweetness, heart, and innocent charm that really drive home the likeability of Charley.
The late and very great Roddy McDowall clearly was having major amounts of fun on this movie. His performance as Peter Vincent is greatly charismatic and smart. He brings such jovial, witty quality that required a charming sweetness. The moments where he plays up the corny aspects of the character are very entertaining and brilliant. McDowall also adds subtle touches of depth to this lowly washed up horror legend of Peter Vincent, respectfully named after horror greats Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. As Peter Vincent becomes aware of the horrifying reality at hand, McDowall richly portrays the character’s shaken, fearful state of mind. One of the film’s most intense scenes is after Peter Vincent violently slays a creature of the night, and he witnesses the tragic, nightmarish reversion he takes from wolf back to human form. McDowall gives the scenes such emotional substance with an amazingly deep expression of humanity and sympathy. Most other horror films wouldn’t think to incorporate such a powerful moment, but it deeply motivates Peter Vincent to confront Dandridge once again into the film’s climax. It gives him the strength of will and faith to combat this powerful enemy. It’s a great piece of acting by Roddy, and a brilliant piece of screenwriting and directing by Tom Holland.
I absolutely love Chris Sarandon’s work. I think he is a remarkable actor able to bring a unique and entertaining quality to everything he does. He can do great, straight dramatic acting, or as in The Princess Bride, can play a truly despicable villain while still making him deeply comedic. As Jerry Dandridge, Sarandon oozes seductive sexuality which saturates the screen. He has a hypnotic allure that leaves no doubt in his ability to sway Amy’s desires. Sarandon always brings an elegant sophistication to his performances that really penetrates and creates a very theatrical quality. That is vibrantly on display with Jerry Dandridge. He can be nicely charming as the friendly neighbor, but then, turn on the imposing, frightening qualities which electrifies the screen. In the dance club scene, he completely captivates and enthralls with sensual, erotic physicality in conjunction with Amanda Bearse. It’s a great dynamic that Dandridge is both deeply seductive and romantic as well as fiercely violent. Dandridge is very full of life and compelling charisma that would be a chore for most any other actor, but for Sarandon, it seems to come very naturally.
The supporting cast is just as solid and enjoyable. Jonathan Stark does a very intriguing job as Billy Cole. When things get weird, the character just gets weirder. What sort of creature he is, I’m still uncertain about, but that’s good. It shows that there are things that not even all of the horror movie knowledge in the world can explain in this film. Most would know Amanda Bearse from her years on Married With Children, but she shows a whole different side of her talent here. She demonstrates an impressive range starting out as the wholesome, sweet girlfriend Amy who gradually succumbs to Dandridge’s seduction to become an alluring vixen. It’s quite amazing how sexy and attractive she is late in the film. She plays off of Ragsdale very well with both comedic and heartfelt moments, and later, is very in sync with Chris Sarandon’s sensual vibe. It’s solid work. Stephen Geoffreys is great as the quirky, nutty “Evil” Ed. He’s so much the comic life of the film, and it’s not one of those instances where he’s the lone character off-setting the tone. He entirely fits into the tone and style Tom Holland sets with this film, and Ed just pushes the crazy, hyperactive aspect of it all. He’s the clown of the group, and Geoffreys just goes full boar in the latter half of the film. It’s immensely entertaining and well-rounded, as are all of the performances.
Fright Night is amazingly well shot and edited. Pacing is very tight and consistent. There never feels to be a lull as the momentum constantly builds as the plot progresses and the horror intensifies. Mood and atmosphere are smartly maintained through very good, realistic lighting and strategically used haze. The aforementioned club scene is very 80s with vibrant colors and a lively visual style. There’s nothing low grade in this film. The production values are consistently very high. Sets are perfectly realized, and the effects are flat out excellent. Instead of straining the budget with another series of optical composites or wire work, the filmmakers chose some great camera work to avoid showing Jerry Dandridge flying around early on. This adds to the film, oddly. Fright Night is subtle in what it does early on only giving you a taste of who and what Jerry Dandridge is. It’s not gratuitous or flaunting his abilities. It’s saving that for much later when it has more impact. Of course, the special make-up effects are absolutely phenomenal, and on fully ghastly display. The vampire make-up has multiple phases that all work to striking effect, and there is no shortage of genuine, strong scares or vampire gore. We get a couple of chilling, unsettling sights in this film which proves that Fright Night truly lives up to its title by giving the audience a gruesome, frightening thrill ride. In that final act, Charley and Peter aren’t just dealing with Jerry Dandridge, they have multiple fearsome adversaries to battle through in order to survive.
Tom Holland wrote a very smart, clever, and sharp screenplay. It’s a great premise in which one moment Charley’s watching corny old vampire movies on late night television, and the next he finds a vampire living next door to him. Every element of plot and character is interwoven very tightly to allow for that consistent pace and flow I mentioned before. The comedy in the film dynamically fits in very well with the startling horror aspects. When the horror kicks in, it’s high gear all the way, and done with immense talent and skill. He brings out amazing performances and chemistry amongst his actors to create a richly cohesive piece of cinema. Holland really knew how to build suspense and tension to give the terror a strong pay-off. Even the seductive, sexual aspects are given their due build-up to pay them off for the characters and audience. I can’t comment much on Tom Holland’s filmography, but between Fright Night and Child’s Play, he has more than sold me on his talent for horror.
Overall, the original Fright Night is extremely hard to beat. I’m not opposed to ever watching the remake, but I also have no desire to go out of my way to do so. Tom Holland made a purely fun and excellent horror film here that is rich with character, style, terror, and a smart story. Even the 1989 sequel Fright Night, Part II could not rival this film’s innovation and intelligence. You surely cannot go wrong with this delightfully scary film. The performances are amazing all around giving you several wonderfully conceived and executed characters to invest yourself in, and a marvelously realized vampire villain that will surely satisfy on multiple levels. Fright Night is a bonafide classic of the genre in my eyes, and I am surely not alone in that sentiment. If you’ve never seen the original, you will be doing yourself a great favor by doing so. I’ll also clue you in on the two pirate audio commentaries that were recorded by Icons of Fright featuring, among others, Tom Holland, William Ragsdale, Stephen Geoffreys, Chris Sarandon, and Jonathan Stark. They are great insightful listens, and they’re FREE to download!