Hey kids! Learn about the great time we’ll be having if the world powers plunge us into a nuclear winter! This post-atomic horror show traumatized England in 1984, and thanks to the liberal media magnate Ted Turner, even saw some airings in the U.S.. The most extreme prime-time response to Ronald Reagan’s heating up of the Cold War standoff, it remains an honest look at a possible grim future, that rubs our noses in the full consequences of a nuclear exchange.
1984 / Color / 1:33 flat 16mm /
117 (112) min. / Street Date February 13, 2018 / 19.99
Starring: Karen Meagher, Reece Dinsdale, David Brierley, Rita May, Nicholas Lane, Jane Hazelgrove, Henry Moxon, June Broughton, Harry Beety, Ruth Holden, Patrick Allen (voice).
Cinematography: Andrew Dunn, Paul Morris
Film Editors: Donna Bickerstaff, Jim Latham
Visual Effects: Graham Brown, Peter Wragg
Written by Barry Hines
Produced and Directed by Mick Jackson
1965’s The War Game by Peter Watkins was considered so disturbing that its producer the BBC banned it outright. Its maker Peter Watkins charged that the ban was a political move by a government that didn’t want England’s pro-nuke, pro- USA policies disturbed. Except for some theatrical exposure the film disappeared, and it didn’t reach television until the 1980s. That’s when the BBC’s new, emotionally wrenching Threads hit the airwaves, with much more explicit images of atomic terror. Threads has always been considered the UK counterpart to America’s The Day After (1983), an effective, polished two-part ABC TV Movie.
Unlike the U.S. production with its name cast (Jason Robards, in particular), Threads continues the stark semi-docu look of The War Game, complete with handheld camerawork (in 16mm this time) and frequent text inserts that mark the passage of time and offer grim information about the facts of thermonuclear war. An unfamiliar but engaging cast gives us no assurances that anyone will survive. Gritty close-ups prevail, leaving the resourceful director Jackson to create moods with precisely framed claustrophobic images. The montage style gives us impressionist details that suggest more than they show, and add up to a disquieting realism. Nothing is ‘spectacular,’ as in The Day After; there are no glorious images of multiple missiles arcing into the sky, and no God’s-Eye views of populations being vaporized into skeletons. We’re stuck in the subjective experiences of the bombed, who are unaware of the big picture beyond their living rooms and can know little about what’s happening to them.
News broadcasts and public announcements chart the rising tide of pre-attack jitters, but the public does its best to ignore them. As one jolly fellow rightly says, they can’t do anything about it anyway. We follow three groups of people in Sheffield, a town near a NATO base. The working-class Kemp family shares the embarrassment of the slightly better-off Beckett family when their son Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) and the Beckett’s Ruth (Karen Meagher) jump into marriage after an unplanned pregnancy. When panic sets in, the Becketts are better prepared than the Kemps, but it makes little difference. Meanwhile, in downtown Sheffield, councilman Sutton (Harry Beety) must convene a group of civic leaders charged with organizing the civil defense. The few that show up do their best, but the magnitude of multiple air strikes nullifies their efforts. Both families suffer deaths immediately.
The pregnant Ruth then becomes the main character. Emotionally shattered by the carnage of the blast, only an instinct for survival allows her to face the filthy, radioactive aftermath of the attack. Seemingly all England is without sufficient food, protection from the cold and all the things we take for granted — sanitation, communication. Millions of unburied bodies lead to major disease epidemics. In the absence of orders the police refuse to give out the few provisions set aside for emergencies. Starving looters are shot on sight.
Meanwhile, the dutiful authorities are buried alive in their basement shelter beneath the collapsed city hall, with only spotty radio contact with what remains of the outside world. Their pleas for help are answered only with calls for assistance. No organized relief effort is functioning. Few if any buildings are standing, the roads are impassable and hospitals are overwhelmed. Civilization has come to an end literally in an afternoon.
Threads stays away from soap-opera dramatics, chilling us with brutal images and the utter cruelty of atomic death. Key characters mostly die off-screen, their exact fates left unclear. By the time Jimmy’s buddy tries to survive with Ruth, debating the wisdom of eating raw meat from a dead sheep that probably died of radiation, Ruth is no longer talking to anybody. Only survivors capable of working are given food rations, and those looters not shot are imprisoned. The cops confiscate all looted items, for their own use.
Threads’ dismissal of polite civil defense niceties was a real shock in 1984. Unlike earlier doomsday pictures it doesn’t portray a relatively sanitary extinction or set forward a sensational but minimized image of the post-atomic future. It also doesn’t end right after the bombs fall. We instead endure a horrifying nuclear winter that hangs over Britain for the better part of a decade. In brief installments that project the timeline thirteen years post-war, England’s population has been reduced to just a couple of million survivors. The next generation is a disaster. Raised by shell-shocked victims, the children know nothing; the nurturing family unit that even cavemen enjoyed, is gone. Grub-like peasants are interested only in scraping out immediate survival from what meager crops can be grown. Most of human knowledge is lost; civilization is wiped out. We follow Ruth’s daughter to an unforgiving, bleak future. Her entire vocabulary is a few individual words.
Threads’ horrors are unsensationally grim. We’re struck by fleeting glimpses of gore, mutilation and roasted humanity, but the permanent legacy of the war is unending filth and degradation. Scenes with rats and scum are surprisingly disturbing, stronger than similar material in horror films. Likewise, the constant sights of burns and untreated wounds make the survivors look like outcasts from a zombie movie. Ruth is reduced to an automaton trying to find sustenance for her baby; all values have been lost. Even with the dodges and shortcuts of director Jackson’s meager budget, everything we see makes its desired effect. Many images in the last chapters are darkened and masked to depict the grim Nuclear Winter. Ruth’s uncomprehending daughter lives a hellish existence, probably having no idea that the world was ever anything but the horror show she’s grown up with.
Karen Meagher makes a lasting impression as Ruth, a fairly happy young woman preparing an apartment for her baby. Years later Ruth is a spent hag with little hair and severe cataracts from overexposure to UV light (one of many facts explained in the distressing inter-titles). Hines’ well written dialogue and Jackson’s fine direction make the weaknesses of 16mm into a style statement. American blockbuster ‘escapist’ doomsday fantasies use million-dollar special effects, but Threads tells us that real atomic war won’t be awesome or pretty, not for a moment.
Severin’s Blu-ray of Threads continues the disc boutique’s record of fine restorations of important movies from the cultural fringe. This rendition restores some original elements dropped in earlier releases — an original rock ‘n’ roll song is back, along with stronger gore and childbirth moments censored from earlier broadcasts. The new 2K scan looks far better than the TBS broadcast I caught part of thirty-four years ago. When colors are strong the hues are back up to original levels. The encoding preserves the grain and gloom of some scenes, but can’t eliminate the original 16mm image unsteadiness. The English subtitles help greatly in understanding some mumbled dialogues and unfamiliar Brit expressions.
Threads is not a pretty movie, but it has T * R * U * T * H etched into every frame. A pox upon any diplomat or president who even for a moment trifles with the risk of nuclear war.
Severin again comes across with great prime source extras. They’ve snagged video interviews with the charming, motivated actress Karen Meagher, DP Andrew Dunn and production designer Christopher Robillard, plus a fine analytical piece (30 minutes) with critic Stephen Thrower. We see a few clips from director Mick Jackson’s previous UK TV docu A Guide to Armageddon which dramatizes a nuclear bombs’s effect on human flesh by showing a side of pork in a shop window seared by blast-furnace heat. Jackson provides an interesting moderated audio commentary; he’s enjoyed a varied, fairly successful career.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Director Mick Jackson, Moderated by Film Writer Kier-La Janisse and Severin Films’ David Gregory; Audition For the Apocalypse: Interview with Actress Karen Meagher; Shooting the Annihilation: Interview with Director of Photography Andrew Dunn; Destruction Designer: Interview with Production Designer Christopher Robilliard; Interview with Film Writer Stephen Thrower; US Trailer, new Severin promo trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 11, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson