Threads: Revisiting one of the most terrifying films ever made
by Jake Godfrey, 13th July 2021
This article contains spoilers for Threads
Many films purport to be difficult to sit through, but Threads is one of the few films to live up to the mythology.
An urgent warning against nuclear conflict, Threads is a chilling hypothetical that achieves visceral horror with its matter-of-fact presentation of an apocalypse. --Rotten Tomatoes
The only film I have been really and truly scared and indeed horrified by - in an intense and sustained way - is Mick Jackson's post-nuclear apocalypse movie Threads. --Peter Bradshaw, Guardian
It’s fair to say that Threads is not a film to entertain the family with on a sunny Sunday afternoon. In fact, especially in these tumultuous times, there’s a very strong case to be made for Threads being the most inappropriate film to watch, dealing as it does in themes of death, destruction and despair.
However, in many ways it is also extremely prescient and pertains to the 21st century just as much as it did to the 1980s. The government trying to control an uncontrollable situation, to use an example that may just have a few parallels to 2020 and beyond, or the harried hive mind of the British public when put under pressure to comply with certain rules.
Threads is arguably the first film ever to deal directly and realistically with the idea of a nuclear attack and what it would mean for the human population. In 1982, Raymond Briggs – in a stark departure from The Snowman -tackled the issue from a suburban perspective in the wonderful When The Wind Blows, which is no less bleak. Briggs’ characterisation is a far quieter, more reflective piece with an astonishingly powerful ending. It was made into an animated film and released two years after Threads. They would make the perfect, if extremely depressing, double bill.
The origins of Threads can be traced back almost 20 years prior to production. In 1965, the BBC produced The War Game, which shared many of the same devices that would be used in Threads.
However, once it’d been produced, the BBC and the government feared its themes were too strong for a television audience and withdrew it from public consumption before it had been broadcast. Critic Roger Ebert gave the film a rare full four star review, calling it “one of the most skilful documentary films ever made” and it won the Best Documentary Oscar – despite being scripted – in 1967.
The-then director general of the BBC saw the film and decided to take elements of the story and update it for a modern audience. He hired director Mick Jackson, who would go on to helm huge Hollywood blockbusters The Bodyguard and Volcano. But his masterstroke here was also hiring writer Barry Hines, who is perhaps most famous for writing the screenplay for Ken Loach’s Kes.
Jackson and Hinesspent months talking to experts, scientists and doctors so that they could capture the truth of the situation, no matter how bleak. And, as anybody who has seen the film will tell you, it certainly is bleak. Unremittingly so.
Not that you would know that from the opening scenes, which sees protagonists – if they can even be called that in a film like this, Ruth and Jimmy – as played by Karen Meagher and Reece Dinsdale, exchanging barbed banter. Already pregnant, they are settling down to buy their first flat in Sheffield and things are looking, if not idyllic, certainly there is a semblance of safe, suburban normality.
Hines’ great strength in these early scenes is in the juxtaposition of the mundane minutia of their lives with the escalating threat building throughout, largely unnoticed by the population at large until it affects the food supply. Hines has his characters utter deliciously ironic lines like “come on, it’s not the end of the world” and “might as well go out with a bang”.
Blurring fact and fiction, Jackson uses his camera as a fly on the wall, the actors underplaying their characters almost to the point of inertia, in many ways mirroring the kitchen sink drama of a Ken Loach film. The world that Hines and Jackson build in the first half is rooted in realism, edited like a documentary. With Ruth and Jimmy preparing for parenthood, the real plot is buried in the background in snippets of news footage about Soviet subterfuge and military machinations. Hines eschews any theatrics, the dialogue is sparse with scenes set against drab décor.
Around the halfway mark, Threadsturns into a horror film when a nuclear bomb is dropped on Sheffield. People have been warned to stay inside or underground if they can, but beyond that they are more or less on their own. Pandemonium doesn’t even begin to cover it. Harrowing images of bodies being burned or blinded, folk scrabbling with mattresses to cover the cracks.Jackson’s camera plunges into the pandemonium, years before directors like Paul Greengrass made it fashionable and on about a tenth of their budget.
Not that he uses shaky-cam, but the point of these central scenes is to leave the viewer as discombobulated as the characters. Few films have been able to capture sheer, visceral terror as well as Jackson does in these five minutes. People soil themselves and look for lost loved ones. Jimmy sprints from his workplace to find Ruth and is never seen again.
In a Hollywood film, a sequence like this would have been shot over a number of weeks. According to cinematographer Andrew Dunn in an interview included on the DVD release, the entirety of Threads was shot in just 17 days on a shoestring budget of £250,000.
Visual effects were arranged by Peter Wragg, who went on become the maestro who masterminded the design of Red Dwarf. His work here, along with that of make-up designer Jan Nethercot – who was working with little more than ketchup and cereal – combine to create an astonishing array of utterly heinous, horrific injuries. Production designer Christopher Robilliard complimented their work by striving to create the most realistic representation of the effects of a nuclear blast. From burning buildings to cremated countryside, the world of Threads is in many ways as much of a character as Ruth.
Through the second half of the film, Hines methodically and meticulously plots the aftermath of the blast, from a few hours to a few weeks and even longer. Jackson documents the devastation in unflinching detail, a stark shift in tone from the relatively jovial early scenes. The bleakness becomes overwhelming and then goes even further, as a nuclear winter descends over Britain.
These scenes contain the most powerful imagery in the film, as Jackson’s camera hovers over broken bodies and souls sapped of hope and dignity. As the world runs out of resources, Hines unapologetically takes his story to its logical extreme. Images of hospitals full of decaying bodies and doctors performing amputations without anaesthetic, this is material even hardened horror fans would find hard to stomach. Not because of the violence, but because the tone is so unrelentingly dark with absolutely no respite, the horror keeps building without any moments where you can relax. Dystopian doesn’t even begin to do the film justice, with Jackson once saying in an interview that “it is just Threads. That is its genre”.
Through all this, Jackson regularly cuts back to the smoky underground bunker in which, even after the end of the world, people are still playing politics, arguing with frank forthrightness about the semantics of population control.
It is Karen Meagher, though, who steals the film. Having to convey such a plethora of emotions as well as a complete psychological breakdown with almost no dialogue through the second half of the film is a remarkable feat. Linking back to the title, Ruth represents the single sliver of care and compassion in the film, although in keeping with the tone even this is not enough to save her from the depravity of the post bomb world. As if the previous hour wasn’t unrelentingly depressing enough, Ruth, though still alive, is blind as a result of the fallout. Her daughter is practically mute, only able to bark broken English, “work” being the only discernible word she can utter. The final shot, which I won’t spoil here, is arguably one of the most harrowing endings ever committed to celluloid and it is to Hines’ credit that he committed completely to his story and didn’t deign to comfort us with the catharsis of a happy ending.
If all this has made you wonder if Threads is overly mired in misery, I can promise you the experience of watching it is even worse than you imagine. And that, of course, is the point. It is a film to be endured rather than enjoyed, its potency and power undiminished and even enhanced when viewed through modern eyes.
Critic Peter Bradshaw identified Threads as “the film that frightened me most”. Charlie Brooker holds similar sentiments, citing it as a major influence on the nihilistic, nightmarish tone of Black Mirror.
Many films purport to be difficult to sit through, but Threads is one of the few films to live up to the mythology. It may not be a go to choice for an evening’s entertainment, but for my money it is truly a film that has to be seen, a historical document as valid as any documentary.