Film Torments: Threads (1984)

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FOR AUGUST, Film Torments is going to be a little different: instead of reviewing films which are low-quality and ineffective, we’re looking at quality films which are particularly difficult and distressing to sit through. To start us off, Rich sifts through the emotional wreckage of Threads.

When reflecting on my battle scars to remember the most harrowing and devastating films I’ve seen, one came to mind as the absolute most terrifying and upsetting: Threads.

Many people of my generation won’t have heard of the 1984 television film Threads, or if they have they’re unlikely to have watched it in full, because it is very seldom shown. It was certainly a product of its time, depicting in graphic and merciless detail the potential… hell, inevitable… consequences of a nuclear strike on Britain. I know I’m probably preaching to the converted here, but turns out nuclear fall-out sucks for everybody.

Working class author Barry Hines, best known for the super-depressing film Kes (adapted from his own novel), wrote the script for Threads, which was specially commissioned by the BBC’s director general Alasdair Milne. Milne also hired Mick Jackson (who would later direct The Bodyguard and Volcano) to direct, and Jackson referred to the much-revered Carl Sagan, a vocal opponent of Reagan-era missile stockpiling, to maintain scientific accuracy.

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Threads was a big deal at the time, being watched by over 6 million viewers on its original broadcast (for BBC2, that’s a hell of a lot) and winning four BAFTA awards. To date, it has only aired on cable in the USA. Nowadays it turns up occasionally to mark the anniversary of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki bombings and is available on DVD, but Threads is most likely to be watched either online by the morbidly curious or in academic settings, where it is a key piece of post-nuclear literature.

I first experienced it when studying a module about controversial and unpopular texts in university, and the lecturer showed us Threads in our very first lecture without warning, as if to say, “It’s not too late to switch modules, guys – Cannibal Holocaust is next week!”

I’m glad I first watched Threads in that setting, on a large projector screen surrounded by strangers and with no control over starting and stopping. The most admirable thing about Threads is its refusal to be familiar or digestible. There is deliberately little cohesion to most of the storylines; everything set up in the first half-hour (which could almost pass for a dreary episode of Coronation Street) is scattered to the winds once the bomb drops, and after that the only thing that matters is survival.

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As the bomb drops, miles away from the Sheffield town where the story is contained, people either aggressively flee, pile into their insufficient shelters, or stand dumbfounded and impotent watching the mushroom cloud consume millions of lives. In a particularly harrowing moment, a middle-aged woman stands watching, mouth agape and fingers shivering, and in a cut to her feet we see her wet herself onto the street. I don’t think I’ve ever seen pure horror caught so candidly on film.

The timeline jumps forward first by hours at a time, then by days at a time, then eventually by years, separated by cold, quiet captions and statistics. The closest thing to a central character is Ruth, who is unexpectedly pregnant and planning a shotgun wedding to her boyfriend Jimmy, but even she and her daughter Jane end up tangential to the plot because THERE IS NO PLOT. To give a structure to this chaos would be a disservice to the truth of the matter: after the bomb drops, there is no hope, not even the palest ray of it.

The violence and mutations aren’t pornographic or even particularly graphic. Just ugly, frank and realistic. Body horror in movies can often cross too far into the absurd and you no longer feel genuinely threatened or affected. You become a voyeur of violence but you always know you’re going to go to your warm bed later. But with subject matter like this, you’re reminded that there are thousands of missiles in the world and we’re just one unstable leader away from launch while we can do fuck-all about it.

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As I write this, Donald Trump is close to winning the Presidential election: when asked about his nuclear policy he refused to “take those cards off the table” with only an occasional throwaway acknowledgement that nukes aren’t nice, but why have them if you won’t use them? Threads feels pretty pertinent right now, and nobody’s made a more effective “after the bomb” film since. With the likes of petulant despot Kim Jong Un in power elsewhere, efforts to prevent nuclear obliteration are far from permanent. Threads shows a future which is neither impossible nor that improbable, and will keep you awake and distracted long after the credits roll.

Threads is terrifyingly immersive in a way which the more fantastical, stylistic side of horror isn’t. I’ve watched the likes of A Serbian Film and been disturbed and grossed-out, but also felt distant enough from it to be a mere observer and not personally affected. I was surprised to read that Threads was less than two hours long, because the quick pace allows for many short scenes which feel like they amount to a longer epic, and the ordeal outlasts the running time.

Despite all this distress I urge people to look up Threads and give it a watch. Despite the low budget and cast of unknowns, it’s a well-constructed, realistic and unpredictable film which never slips into clichés or exaggeration. It’s certainly not for the sensitive, but it’s all the evidence you need to demonstrate to anybody who tries suggesting that nuclear weapons can solve any international problems.

Threads depicts a war in which, as far as we can tell, nobody won or lost. The war stopped and the aftermath rots society away for generations. It’s not a good pick for a movie night with drinks, but if you want to experience film at its most authentic and profound, you won’t find a more permanent scare.

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1 Response

  1. Carl C. says:

    “Threads” was actually shown on PBS stations across the United States after Ted Turner aired it on his cable station, and while it did get some attention prior to its airing on PBS (at least here on the East Coast, in NYC where I am and was living even back then), it didn’t receive anywhere near the kind of national attention “The Day After” got in the press leading to its premiere broadcast.

    I also find myself wondering if you’re aware of the scenes that were removed from “Threads” after its initial airings here and in Britain for being ‘too psychologically disturbing’ and traumatizing for people to watch. One of the scenes that was cut, which I still remember seeing when I first watched my PBS VHS recording of the movie 32 or 33 years ago, was of a cat being incinerated during the bomb blast. If you had seen that during your class showing of the movie, you would have walked away from this film even more depressed and traumatized than you did, trust me. I remember having this creepy, eerie feeling when I walked out of my house after watching that film that I couldn’t shake off for days. This film is literally the stuff of worst possible nightmares, and God help us all if something like it ever really happens one day.

    It *should* be compulsory viewing for all young people in their mid-to-late teens and into their twenties to have to watch at some point, especially as college students.

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