Do not adjust your screens. For those of you who think I’ve made at a grave mistake attributing The Terminator to John Carpenter, just go with me on this one. Before I get to righting that perceived wrong, let’s take a look at the film’s true creator – James Cameron.
I’ve written about him before. Considering he’s directed the two highest-grossing films of all-time, his career is certainly worth discussing. In that article, I looked at the three sequels he’s been a part of and how they’re all linked, following the same structure. I touched briefly on the pre-production of The Terminator, but I’ll shed a bit more light on it here.
James Cameron could hardly settle on one interest. His brief collegiate stint was split between studying physics and English, hardly complementary subjects. But that wasn’t enough to hold his interest. He dropped out to pursue a series of dead end jobs, the most infamous of which was a truck driver.
But there was always one constant: film.
Ever since he’d seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, he’d been fascinated by them. It awakened in him the thought that science and art can be combined. Suddenly the physics studies and the English studies weren’t so incompatible.
All the while he was working, he was also studying. At the University of Southern California, he read, annotated and photocopied every article he could find about special effects. The two most prominently researched processes were optical printing, the predecessor to the digital green screen, and rear/front-screen projection, famously used in the original King Kong. He didn’t yet have a direction for this knowledge, but he’d find it in a dark theater in 1977.
He’d find it in Star Wars.
It was enough inspiration to make him quit his trucking gig and gather a cast and crew for his first film, Xenogenesis.
Operating from Syd Field’s holy text Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, he crafted a script with Randall Frakes, who’d eventually write the novelizations for the first two Terminator films. The crew, including longtime friend and eventual Terminator 2: Judgment Day cowriter William Wisher (who actually stars in Xenogenesis), raised money, about $20,000, to rent a 35mm camera and everything else they’d need for the shoot.
Luckily for us, the film has survived all these years and is readily available on YouTube.
Assisted by some (stolen) music from Bernard Herrmann, the film is a short sci-fi story of the last survivors of humanity looking for a safe place to repopulate.
And it’s pretty impressive for its time and budget. It features a lot of the techniques Cameron had been studying, like optical printing, forced perspective and miniatures. There are even a few clear Terminator forerunners, like a big, two-armed, double-treaded killer tank and a painting of a man with a robotic, vaguely skeletal arm.
But it wasn’t time for that yet.
Xenogenesis was enough to get Cameron a job with Roger Corman, the legendary low-budget producer who started seemingly every director’s career in Hollywood. He worked on a number of sci-fi features, namely designing special effects on the cheap. His work was impressive enough to even get him the job as special effects director of photography on John Carpenter’s Escape From New York.
The more astute among you might notice this is where John Carpenter finally enters the picture, but not quite as we’ll be discussing. Just keep this coincidence in mind.
Cameron had wowed the right people. Or wrong people, depending on who you’re asking. Like Cameron himself.
Piranha II: The Spawning was supposed to be directed by another Corman student. But the project’s Italian producer had him replaced. Cameron provided said replacement. Until he, too, was eventually replaced.
He hated working on the film, which for completion’s sake was about flying, vengeful piranhas, and was even strong-armed out of post-production. Most of the crew was Italian and spoke no English. To call it a low-budget production was a gross compliment to the money behind it. It was enough to make him sick. And in fact it did.
In his feverish state, he had an anxious dream about a robot man rising from a fire and hunting him.
And that’s when the Terminator entered his life.
He wrote up a script almost impossibly fast and sold the rights to produce it for $1 to Gale Anne Hurd (his future second wife) on the condition that he direct it.
Interestingly, his first draft would form the basis for Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which would have to wait until 1991. It followed two Terminators, one of which could take the form of liquid metal.
Alas, liquid metal was too great of a special effects feat for the early 80s, so he turned it into more of a love story, a man vs. machine thriller.
The movie was made for a shoestring $6.5 million and brought in around $78 million across the globe.
It was a smash hit, at least proportionally, and heralded a new benchmark in special effects. Those years of study and practice paid off, with every sort of practical effect employed in the name of bringing the Terminator to terrifying life.
Life was good for James Cameron. It was a critical and financial hit.
One critic, however, loved the film with one caveat.
The critic, not by trade, was Harlan Ellison, a writer. His caveat? That the story was stolen from his own works, namely two episodes of The Outer Limits, “Soldier” and “Demon With a Glass Hand.”
“Soldier” follows two warriors from the future who are hurtled into the past (the present, to the audience) and must do battle in an unfamiliar time.
“Demon With a Glass Hand” is about a man sent from, you guessed it, the future, where a race of inhuman beings are wiping out humanity. He must find something to assure the human race’s survival as some of those inhuman beings chase him into the past. The episode’s big twist is that he finds out he’s actually a robot under human flesh.
Ring any bells?
They rung enough to result in Orion Pictures, with Cameron’s begrudging support, paying Ellison a large sum of money and including his name in the credits of the film.
Some sources claim Cameron once admitted (proudly, depending on who’s telling the story) that he ripped off Ellison. Others claim that he had been interviewed about the film and mentioned The Outer Limits as an inspiration, then backpedaled and requested that that part of the interview be redacted.
Keep in mind that most of these sources are named Harlan Ellison.
To this day, Cameron loathes Ellison for the lawsuit and the accusations.
This would be Cameron’s first accusation of plagiarism, but far from the last.
Pretty much every film he’s ever made, with the exceptions of Aliens and The Abyss, has gotten at least one copyright infringement lawsuit lobbied at it.
But there’s one film he borrowed an awful lot from that nobody called him out on. And here’s where John Carpenter enters the picture.
Halloween was Carpenter’s Terminator. While he’d directed two feature-length films before (Dark Star in 1974 and Assault on Precinct 13 in 1976), it was still his low-budget, self-made box office smash.
He demonstrated a fresh, suspenseful take on horror that hadn’t been seen before, much like Cameron with The Terminator.
But the two films share more than just being career launching pads.
Let’s take a look at the plots.
An unstoppable, seemingly inhuman killer has chosen a certain set of women to kill. Only one man knows the extent of the killer’s evil and even though nobody believes him, will have to save her life on his own. Set to a driving electronic score.
Halloween or The Terminator?
Take the horror framework of Halloween and add some science fiction. You get The Terminator.
But it goes even deeper.
Both movies open with a stylish introduction for their respective killers. Young Michael Myers goes on a first-person killing spree in his house. The T-800 appears in a ball of light in an empty parking lot.
Then we meet our heroines. Sarah Connor and Laurie Strode are young women working menial jobs. Sarah’s a waitress. Laurie’s a babysitter. We meet their respective friends, all similar to them but most of them are more outgoing, more irresponsible.
All the while, the killer lurks in the background. In the local convenient store. At an ordinary suburban house.
Then comes our hero. While on the surface Dr. Loomis and Kyle Reese couldn’t be any more different, they have the same motivation and serve the same arc. There’s a storm coming and only they know it. They have to stop the bodies from piling up too high before its too late.
Each has been obsessed with their goal for a long time. Loomis knew Michael was the embodiment of evil when he was first assigned as his psychiatrist. He knew from that moment that he had to do everything he possibly could to keep him locked up. Reese was given a photo of Sarah Connor when he first joined the human resistance. He was told to get familiar with every feature of her, to think of nobody else.
And because their missions finally present themselves, they’re single-minded in seeing them through.
The heroine starts seeing hints of the someone on her trail. Laurie sees Michael around town, but he always vanishes. Sarah sees someone (who turns out to be Reese) stalking her in the night. TV reports keep her updated with the ever-growing list of recently killed Sarah Connors.
When the hero first meets the killer, when the heroine is inches from death, they unload into the killer mercilessly. The heroine doesn’t have any clue what she’s involved in.
That plot point happens at different spots in each film, but it plays very similarly.
The police get involved, but at first don’t buy the story. In Halloween, the sheriff eventually helps Loomis find MIchael. In The Terminator, they all get gunned down for their troubles.
There’s even a massive fakeout death in both films.
In Halloween, Loomis shoots Michael off the second-story balcony of a house. His body hits the backyard and stays there. Until Loomis looks to find he’s run away. He’s alive. End credits.
In The Terminator, there are two fakeouts. Reese and Sarah get the T-800 to crash the gas truck it was driving, leading to a violent explosion. The day is saved. Until the exoskeleton rises from the fire to pursue them. But eventually Reese slips a hand grenade through its torso, blowing it in half. The day is saved. For real this time. Or not, as the upper half revives and comes after Sarah.
This isn’t to say that Cameron is a hack or a thief. There are no new stories, after all, just the same ones told by different storytellers. To his credit, he created his own mythos out of the same structure. It’s by no means a straight retelling.
And he picked the perfect film to borrow that structure from.
Both center around a supernatural villain. The T-800 may not be a ghost or a zombie, but a killer robot certainly isn’t natural. In both films, accepting that these villains are virtually unkillable takes something of a leap on the part of the audience.
It’s often overshadowed by its sequels, but in the original Halloween, Michael Myers wasn’t possessed by some occult group and his unstoppable quality hadn’t ballooned to cartoonish levels. He was simply the personification of evil, and you can’t kill that. That’s why he was referred to in the credits as “The Shape.”
The Terminator is seemingly destroyed in a fiery explosion. Until its endoskeleton emerges from the wreckage to pursue more menacingly than ever.
Evil is never destroyed; it merely changes shape.
And those shapes carry over into each killer’s iconic mask. Michael Myers obviously wears a mask (a spray-painted William Shatner mask, to be precise) that’s gone down in horror film history. The T-800’s outer layer of skin is his mask, but we don’t realize it until it starts getting torn off. And as soon as his robotic eyes are exposed, he puts on sunglasses that stay on for most of the film. His eyes are blacked out and hidden, just like seemingly bottomless eyeholes on Michael’s mask.
Evil may have a face, but it’s one that offers no relief or hint of humanity.
Instead of looking it in the eyes, we see through them.
Both Halloween and The Terminator rely on first-person sequences to put us in the head of the killer.
Halloween opens this way, as stated before, following young Michael as he finds and kills his victims. From the start we’re forced to see as he sees, horrifically.
The Terminator uses first-person perhaps more memorably as we see the T-800’s blood-red visual feed. While this point-of-view is first employed to hunt down Sarah Connor, we later see through the T-800’s eyes as he mows down an entire police station.
By forcing us to see as they see, we’re not just given corpses as evidence of how deadly the killer is; we see them do the deed, coldly and inhumanly.
And it works, clearly.
The Terminator scored 42nd and Halloween 68th on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Thrills, a list of the 100 most-thrilling American films ever made.
Both led to respectably long franchises, though each ended up slipping in quality by the end. The pattern in both series is the same – as soon as the original director gives up all involvement, the movies start dropping precipitously.
And both stand as benchmarks of low-budget horror.
Halloween revolutionized the genre and birthed a veritable flood of low-budget slasher flicks. Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street owe it (and Texas Chainsaw Massacre before it) a debt of gratitude. As does The Terminator and James Cameron’s career along with it.
It’s a real shame that while Cameron soared into being a household name and self-proclaimed “king of the world,” Carpenter struggled the rest of his career.
After Halloween, Carpenter returned to horror with The Fog, which wasn’t a wild success like its predecessor. Then came Escape from New York, a futuristic, dystopian action romp featuring his mulleted muse, Kurt Russell, in the role of a lifetime. His big turning point was The Thing, which has since gone on to be featured in endless lists of the greatest horror films ever made.
Unfortunately, in 1982, it was a massive flop. Critics tore it to shreds and Carpenter’s career never really recovered. The rest of the 80s saw him make films often regarded as gutsy, off-beat genre classics (like Big Trouble in Little China, They Live and, depending on who you ask, Prince of Darkness). But again, they flopped. The 90s didn’t see a single hit or notable work (besides In The Mouth of Madness, which I’d wager is his last great feature) and his career was effectively over. These days he makes the convention circuit, where I was lucky enough to meet him once, releases new synth albums and still discusses possible projects.
He has a remarkable filmography, but it’s still an unfortunate send-off to such a ground-breaking filmmaker. I highly recommend seeking out some of his work, mainly the ones I’ve mentioned above. You’ll probably see him pop up on this site again.
If nothing else, this article was to show just how influential he was, inspiring some of the most famous directors and writers today. And to show that, while James Cameron may or may not be a plagiarist, he at least was a big fan of Halloween.