Horror movies feature creatures that come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and degrees of gooiness, yet there are several unwritten rules that their stories follow. For example, the monster should target a particular group of people, preferably amorous teenagers, even if it is large enough to topple whole cities. It should never, ever move at speeds faster than a brisk trot, and it should always return for a final jump-scare or eye-popping reveal at the story's end—because sequel.
Oh, and lest we forget, the movie should be named after the monster.
This last tradition goes way back. The classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 40s were named after their monsters, from Dracula (1931) to The Invisible Man (1933) to The Wolf Man (1941) to Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The B-rated schlock of the 1950s kept the tradition alive. For example, It Came from Outer Space (1953) is about an It that came to Earth from outer space. If you are curious what an It looks like, well, that would be a giant eyeball covered in moss and battling a heinous migraine.
And this, oddly enough, brings us to The Terminator. As we argue in our "Genre" section, the film is as much of a horror film as it is a science-fiction film. And not one to eschew tradition, The Terminator names itself after the monster.
The filmmakers wouldn't have used this naming device, though, unless they thought it brought something to the film, and, in fact, the title has two major strengths.
The first is that it's enticing. Imagine that you've never seen the film or heard of the franchise. You see a poster titled The Terminator and wonder, "What or who is a Terminator? What would someone like that want? Why does he terminate, and what does that even mean? Is it a film about a guy who kills, or is it about someone who walks around the office all day handing out pink slips?" Only one way to find out: you'll have to pony up for a ticket and watch the film
Second, the title informs you that the monster, the Terminator, is the heart of the film—something that's true, of course, of many horror movies. It isn't the protagonist or the setting that is the story's driving force—it's the monster itself. The Terminator's objective to kill Sarah generates the conflict, and the decisions made by Reese, Sarah, and most other characters are in direct response to this machine's murder spree. The film can only conclude when it is destroyed…or when it completes its mission.
Without the Terminator, you have no story, so it's the creature of this feature that gets top billing.