From 1984's "Threads."
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Threads May 20, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Mick Jackson

 

STARRING

Paul Vaughan
Karen Meagher
Reece Dinsdale
David Brierley
Rita May

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1984

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 52 Mins.

T

hreads (1984) is the most frightening movie I’ve seen that doesn’t resemble, in most respects, a traditional horror movie. Horror tends to prefer imagined terrors — ones either purposely allegorizing or subconsciously informed by current cultural and social fears. But in Threads, there are no platitudes, no flirtations around the nightmare portrayed. It’s a work of speculative fiction that offers, austerely,

what exactly the fallout of a nuclear war might look like. 

 

Set in Sheffield, Threads' narrative begins conventionally enough: young couple Ruth and Jimmy (Karen Meagher and Reece Dinsdale) are getting an apartment and a marriage after Ruth discovers she’s pregnant. The larger terrors to come are, for a while, only background noise to their encroaching domestic anxieties. On radios and TVs soundtracking Ruth’s and Jimmy’s conversations and lives, we hear vaguely of a worsening conflict following a Soviet invasion of Iran, itself a ramification of a coup supported by the U.S. Nuclear war is progressively becoming a possibility, it’s suggested. Like most people, Ruth and Jimmy find it hard to gauge how much these more-dangerous-by-the-day international hostilities will affect their day-to-day lives. So they react like most people would: listen to updates attentively when they have the chance to but file it in the back of their minds when everyday responsibilities become more immediately urgent.
 

But almost in exact rhythm with Ruth and Jimmy’s domestic next steps, the threat becomes unmistakable. A series of retaliative, Soviet-sanctioned detonations leaves Sheffield and surrounding cities whispers of what they had been only a few minutes ago. Twelve to 30 million people in Sheffield alone are killed in an instant. Threads, written by author and playwright Barry Hines and directed by Mick Johnson for TV, doesn’t next move into carefully paced, recovery-driven optimism after its inciting incident — drift into, as we might expect, an eventually moving story of survival and pressing on in the face of unfathomable doom. Jimmy is assumed dead, and though the movie checks in on Ruth intermittently, Threads spends the rest of its runtime bleakly considering how life as we know it would be devastated beyond repair by nuclear war, with communication, transportation, and shelter impossible for anyone not solidly upper-class or in some way affiliated with government or tenuous recovery efforts.
 

Threads never resorts to sensationalism. When away from the short-lived Ruth and Jimmy subplot, it’s presented like a straight-faced documentary. Emotionless voiceovers and title cards update us on the states of Sheffield and surrounding areas; there’s also much attention paid to the resulting textural decrepitude by Johnson, who opts for effective close-ups of devastated architecture necessitated by the movie’s tiny £400,000 budget. It’s chillingly matter of fact. 
 

Jackson has said in interviews that he was in part galvanized to make a movie like Threads because no one had yet made a movie that very honestly considered what the consequences of much-fretted-over nuclear war would be. He didn’t want to make something in line with the disaster-movie subgenre, which usually transitioned from its central disaster into a poignantly triumphal story of the human spirit persevering. He wanted to give an as-true-as-possible document for viewers — hopefully including those occupying positions putting their fingers in close proximity to nuclear-detonation buttons — to refer to to fathom the human impacts of something spoken about only in hypotheticals.
 

Threads is a great scare tactic of a movie, improved because it could happen. But it also functions as an invaluable driver of empathy, given the trauma and displacement it shows are not confined to fiction. Threads gives us a visual and emotional conduit for better understanding, and reinforces the truth that no spectacle-driven horror movie is ever as scary as war. A