Threads (Mick Jackson, 1984)

by Douglas Buck December 26, 2018 8 minutes (1772 words) DCP Cinema Moderne, part of the monthly M: Les Maudits program

It’s British working class kitchen-sink docu-style melodrama all the way (at least it starts that way), set in the working class city of Sheffield, as young couple Ruth (Karen Meagher) and Jimmy (Reece Dinsdale) grapple with their unplanned pregnancy and the ensuing conflicts with their families (including decisions on marriage and abortion) – well, that is until just under an hour in, when the unthinkable occurs, and the international military tensions and war manoeuvres that have been intruding all-throughout on the narrative shift from underlying metaphor into ultimate reality – and a nuclear warhead explodes – turning this completely bonkers BBC-televised drama (how the heck did they actually air this on the telly?) into the most profoundly harrowing, anxiety inducing vision of nuclear catastrophe and its aftermath ever captured on celluloid in the western hemisphere.

Opening on extreme close-up images of spiders weaving their web as a quasi-philosophical scientifically-intoned voice pontificates on the fragile threads that hold a society together (perhaps the closest scene one could call tranquil in the film), the narrative following the families eventually – after the big bombarooski goes off – falls away into a searingly grim anti-narrative, a profoundly visceral lecture (through teletype on-screen dates, the occasional intoning of the opening narrator and some of the most affecting and despairing imagery I’ve ever seen captured in a fictional film) on the complete annihilation of those frail connections, as the entirety of humanity’s infrastructure collapses, and what’s left – for those few who survived the initial blast, then the radiation and fall-out, lack of anything coming close to a functioning civilization, and on into the freezing cold and almost entirely crop-barren and dead earth due to the effects of years of devastating nuclear winter – are solitary survivors, capable of only the most rudimentary of speech and little skills of survival beyond the most barbaric (not quite the vision of something like Sergio Martino’s 2019: After the Fall of New York).

The film takes on the complete absurd ineffectiveness of every comforting directive the government has given to the public on what to do in the case of a nuclear attack (for instance, take the door off its hinges and hunker down beneath it — something one conforming couple actually does, sitting in blankets under their door, with their skin and hair singed horribly from the blast, their son lying dead in the rubble around them, vomiting and slowly dying as they realize there’s nowhere left to go now that the door perhaps temporarily saved them).

Threads provides none of the comforting pablum of shows like the zombie-apocalypse __The Walking Dead_ (and I’ve heard The Day After, the nuclear apocalypse TV movie that played around the same time on American films, with a narrative that apparently played out – astoundingly — much more like a standard disaster film), in which small groups will band heroically together and the strength and resolve of their humanity (especially the ol’ white male variety, with the allowance of a few color grades in their to show how progressive they are, when push comes to shove) will save the day…. Oh, no. Threads, quite clinically, and quite disturbingly, breaks the entire notion of man’s underlying heroism as something that will save him as the harmful lie it’s always been (when desperate people show up at someone’s door they’re met with a shotgun pointed at their face, not with a Walking Dead character soliloquy and a comforting welcome).

While all of the actors in the film do yeoman’s work — their individual ‘every man’ quality adding immeasurably to the overall harrowing believability – Meagher’s Ruth, the single survivor we follow most of the way through (with her parents and the other faces – those few who survived initially – slowly falling away, with – I believe anyway, unless I missed it in the pandemonium – us never learning what exactly happened to her love Jimmy) is particularly unforgettable. Her surreal nightmarish stumbling walk through a destroyed city filled with dead animal pets, horribly disfigured survivors with little sanity left (the haunting image of the clearly insane woman holding what appears to be a dead and charred baby staring at Ruth as she passes reaches a kind of pinnacle in literalizing actual trauma), is the kind of thing from which terrifying nightmares are born (made more starkly horrifying in how we understand what we are seeing is entirely possible, appearing more likely in fact each day, with outgoing President Obama having signed a trillion dollar nuclear weapons modernization program on his way out the door, handing it directly over to everyone’s favourite incoming Orange Boogeyman – thanks, there, Barack).

Following Ruth’s cold stark journey into delivering her baby girl, alone, on a cold stone floor (ironically, having had discussions pre-bomb on whether to abort or not), then desperately trying to keep the both of them alive (including trading sexual favours for dead frozen rats for food), on to the girl growing up (to watch her mother Ruth, her eyes twisted from cataracts, die) with no socialization, little ability to communicate other than through the grunts and single words, with barely any planetary sustenance to survive, is harsh stuff. As is watching the small group of concerned citizens who are supposed to be in charge of the command station when disaster strikes, revealed as woefully unequipped (revealing all of it as governmental lies to further comfort the masses that survival and societal order was possible post-all-out nuclear war), stuck below ground at what loosely could be termed an operation center, having lost all communication and inevitably starving to death.

It’s so harsh, in fact, when I realized there was at least another 25 minutes left of this harsh landscape to watch, I started to feel something I’ve never felt before sitting in a cinema (well, never related to the images I was seeing on the screen anyway), something akin to a panic attack. Forget nuclear war, if you ever want to imagine the reality of the Hell on Earth that Middle Eastern woman and children are living right now, with bombs like what was referred to as ‘the Mother of All Bombs’ having been dropped on their heads, as well as 365,000 bombs in one year alone at the end of the Obama administration, set your eyeballs on the mind-blowing nightmare of the hospital scene in Threads, in which the ill-equipped doctors and nurses, with no useable services, saw off the gangrene-filled legs of old men and pull glass out of the stomach of screaming children in the blood- and pus-filled hallways, with the screams and moans of the traumatized all about. As much as I’m determined to provide an understanding for my 13 year old daughter of what’s happening in the world and give her a sense of the privilege upon which the luck of geographic and economic placement has provided, I’m just not willing to show her that.

Threads provides no glimpse at anyone in control or positions of power at work. It can only be assumed there is none left, or that they’ve moved into pure self-preservation. There is only the man on the street, and he’s barely alive, burnt and bleeding, soon to die. Is it brilliant narrative storytelling? I don’t know. It’s certainly hauntingly and unforgettably conceived (the level of verisimilitude it achieves on what was apparently a low budget is mind-boggling). It’s a profoundly important vision, a truth from most high. It’s staggering to me that the BBC actually showed this film back in 1984 (a night that apparently emotionally traumatized an entire country).

It’s certainly not entertainment, but I’m grateful Severin put the film out and that the folks behind the “M: Les Maudits” series at Cinema Moderne decided to show it. Even more incredibly, they programmed it together with another entirely devastating, if far more quiet and smaller in scale, portrait of nuclear devastation, the animated When the Wind Blows, which I unfortunately missed catching this time around (I did see it over a decade ago and remembering it leaving me feeling a bit hollowed out for a few days).

The mission statement of the monthly “M: Les Maudits” series is to ‘shed light on hidden treasures of genre cinema: be it cult films, films maudit’, or other underestimated and eccentric gems’, which is theoretically a beautiful thing (especially happening in a theater within current walking distance from me) but… it raises immediate apprehensions of an alluring stench being put out to those uninformed hipster youths I refer to as cackling hyenas, as they sniff leftovers, coming merely to point derisively and laugh mindlessly (confident in their privilege, clueless to their disrespect for the rest of the audience, as small as it is, that actually enjoys experiencing whatever it is the filmmakers are trying to impart, successful or otherwise – in other words, those who actually like movies) as a way to feel smarter and better than what’s playing out on the screen (unaware how often what’s revealed is exactly the opposite). I thought for sure, after screenings such as John Carpenter’s fun 80’s candy Halloween III in the series, these drooling hyenas would have little context with which to approach When the Wind Blows and Threads (expecting something they could cackle at, like the colourful fun of Italian apocalypse fun of the Martino epic, or say Enzo Castellari’s The Bronx Warriors) and, even they, finally, would be traumatized into total submission.

While, yes, I can happily report, this was mostly true (and their mostly stunned silence was pure gold to me)… even here, however, surrounded by images of profound, uncompromising despair, showing them a possible future that they themselves may live if they don’t act, their desperate innate desire to dissociate and remain childishly disaffectedly hip showed through. Of course, no surprise, it was during what were amazingly powerful details, revealing moments that were incredibly resonant, to which a few (thankfully few, though determined to have their self-important voices heard) reacted this way… the moment when Jimmy’s father rises from the toilet bowl just as the bomb hits and the image of an ET doll melting in flames from the blast. Funny? Not even remotely. Powerful, brilliant? Entirely.

What can I say. If the Mile End hipster infiltration is so powerful it can find moments to speak out derisive during a screening of Threads? Yes, Threads?? Well…as potentially exciting as the ‘Maudit’ series is, my sense of concern of it descending into monthly cackling hyena sessions to be avoided at all costs remains.

Threads (Mick Jackson, 1984)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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