Recommended Viewing Situation:
When you’ve heard of Uranium – you know it’s this thing called nuclear weapons. And other things. Including some bad things. But you’re not sure what the real life implications of that might be.
Running Time: 112 minutes.
Format: 16mm film.
Director: Mick Jackson
Writers: Barry Hines
Cinematographers: Andrew Dunn and Paul Morris.
Awards: BAFTA TV Awards for Best Single Drama: Mick Jackson; Best Film Cameraman: Andrew Dunn; Best Film Editor: Jim Latham; Best Design: Christopher Robilliard.
Trigger warning: This film contains an instance of rape.
I’ve never encountered a film that made me feel quite like I did watching Mick Jackson’s Threads (1984). There are many types of horror film. Some, like It Follows (2014), convey a sense of approaching menace. You might find your heart rate increasing, and the slightest touch or movement is liable to make you jump. Psychological thrillers like Rebecca (1940) are more likely to have your mind racing and your chest tightening. I avoid what I call torture-porn – gratuitously violent films like The Hills Have Eyes (2006) – because they simply make me feel nauseated. For somewhat Freudian reasons, supernatural thrillers are often designed to arouse sexual excitement, and so on.
Threads is the first film to instil in me such profound and lasting existential dread. In one way or another, horror films are usually exciting. Threads made me feel the way I do when my depression has taken a turn for the worse; a feeling which is in no way akin to excitement. I don’t say this to put you off – at Eyes on the Screen, we only review films which we believe are truly worth watching – but to convey how successfully it warns the viewer of the realities of nuclear warfare. With the alarming international rise of the political far-right and alt-right, it is imperative that more of us watch films like Threads, which is fast becoming as relevant as it was when it was made, in the middle of the Cold War.
Threads begins in the style of a kitchen sink drama. Ruth (Karen Meagher) and her boyfriend (Reece Dinsdale) find out they are going to have a baby. They move out of their parents houses and start preparing for this unexpected new life. Ruth paints the walls in their new home. Things are changing but the dialogue is fairly ordinary, just what you’d expect of a family in their situation. And all the while, in the background, there are the commonplace sounds of the radio and television. If you let your attention shift from the dialogue of the characters on-screen, you might hear mention of rising tensions in the Middle East or talk of the Cold War. In the supermarket, people are stocking up on tinned food. The tension increases so subtly and at such a gradual rate that when the bomb is finally dropped it is genuinely alarming. It’s hard to tell whether you might have been more prepared had you listened to those news broadcasts, because, just like in your own life, you place more importance on the immediate, knowable human drama in the foreground. You assume that the things happening on the news, while important, won’t touch you.
When I was watching Threads, my dad walked in, laugh-frowned and asked, ‘Why are you watching – is that one of those Protect and Survive broadcasts?’ I’m too young to have seen any public information films on nuclear warfare, but my dad assures me that parts of Threads closely mimic the style of these films, in which most of the advice was fairly useless instruction on how to build your own shelter-cum-coffin out of a door and some sandbags. He sat down to watch Threads with me for a few minutes, then muttered ‘Oh, shit,’ and left, grimacing. The brutality of the post-nuclear society was hard to watch, but for me, the greatest violence was also the most subtle, a slow-growing heaviness in the pit of my stomach which began when Ruth realised she was pregnant, and I, knowing that Threads is a nuclear disaster film, thought of the word ‘unpeople’, used to devastating effect by Margaret Atwood in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. That feeling nagged at me whenever Ruth drank water which I knew must be contaminated, or ate, or even breathed, and I thought of the baby inside her. It increased as the next generation of survivors began to cultivate food and regain a semblance of a society. It didn’t go away, because there’s no upside to nuclear action and everything just keeps getting worse. Which is why you really need to watch Threads, especially if, say, you’re a prominent world leader with access to nuclear deterrents.