An observation that can be made about films such as Last House on the Left (1972) and Halloween (1978) is that their narratives rely on horror being brought home to the calm corners of suburbia to manifest. After all, both captured the unrelenting carnage of the conflict in Viet Nam, which invited itself into several homes on a nightly basis. Narrated by the likes of Walter Cronkite, airstrikes of napalm and machine-gun fire lit up television screens as the public was given an unfiltered experience of carnage. The conflict itself was the ultimate defeat of American hubris, and the establishment became challenged by the throngs of youth filled with discontent.
The disconnect between the two was not exclusive to the United States. As the tumultuous decade of the 1980s began, the divide in the United Kingdom between the ruling class led by prime minister Margaret Thatcher and an entire generation who seemed to lack any sort of direction was found in the form of artistic expression that fought back. Nowhere was this more vividly illustrated than the music that fueled the sounds of revolution. Discharge, The Exploited, Crass, and several others didn’t mince words or hide their disdain for the establishment. For so many, it might have seemed to mirror the class divide that had been present in Victorian England. Even the BBC took shots through shows such as The Young Ones, which depicted a generation that appeared to be lost in an economic crisis and lacked any sort of discernable direction.
In fact, it would be the BBC that would provide the most jarring, effective, and unrelenting commentary on the time period. Threads (1984), ironically released in the same year that Orwell had prophesized would bring about complete dystopia, lived up to its title as it unraveled the collective consciousness, reducing anyone who viewed it into a broken shell of paranoia and existential dread. Although the cold war has long been over with, and the arms race is now relegated to memory, Threads provides a chilling portrait of not only war itself, but the after-effects upon humanity, and the disconnect from events half a world away, that we assume have little to no effect upon our daily life.
What makes Threads unique from other titles that have attempted to tackle similar subject matter, is its presentation and narrative that shares more in common with an actual documentary than a feature film. As a matter of fact, the melodramatic first half shares a common aspect with Psycho (1960), in that while it’s effective in establishing certain characters, it will be stripped bare after a cataclysmic event. The melodramatic aspects, if they could possibly be considered as such, focus upon a situation that’s instantly recognizable and relatable, and one that draws the viewer into the basic struggles that accompany the tumultuous journey into adulthood. Ruth and Jimmy, two youths from the working-class town of Sheffield, are in the planning stages of their future, after finding out about an unexpected pregnancy. At first, we assume this will be the plot that Threads focus on. Like Janet Leigh’s theft in Psycho, the dedication to this plot drives the narrative forward in the first act. Even meeting the families of both Ruth and Jimmy seems to further this illusion.
Throughout this entire melodramatic presentation, an international incident half a world away in Iran between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union is unfolding. Threads utilizes narration, stock footage, various text crawls, and news reports to inform its audience of the world events that will soon make their presence felt. This method of presentation, while allowing the focus to remain on the main characters, also illustrates one of the fundamental and apathetic aspects of human nature, the disconnect from world events that don’t have a direct impact on our daily life. This is expressed through many actions from various characters in the first act. Newspapers informing the public are largely ignored, and even when a news report is broadcast in a local pub, it’s turned off by the barkeep in an act of total disinterest.
This behavior is still a part of the world we exist in today. It wasn’t too long ago that the news of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shocked many. On the same day, it was announced that several truck drivers planned on organizing a protest against the mask mandates that are still in place to combat the spread of COVID-19. This action illustrated the disconnect that exists between major world events and the supposed “comfort” of the average individual.
The way in which Threads presents this pivotal information strike two chords, both British and both existing on different ends of the spectrum. The first is anarcho-punk pioneers Crass and their 1982 release, Christ: The Album. The album, which provides an unflinching political and social commentary that the group was known for is further accentuated by the use of several samples interwoven almost seamlessly, giving context to much of their diatribes and illustrating how information is presented to the public. In the song “Beg Your Pardon”, a sample of a newscaster discussing the police’s authority to shoot and kill during civil defense at the outbreak of a nuclear conflict is a chilling precursor to Steve Ignorant’s lyric of “In the beginning, they said there was light, there ain’t much left of it now.” Crass would perfect this technique of weaving multiple sources together in Christ: The Movie (1990), a collection of footage and imagery that would accompany the band during their live performances.
The other aspect that proves to be quite prevalent in Threads is the influence of Hitchcock, one that makes itself clear in the film’s dramatic and shocking climax. Because Threads is a film about the impending nuclear holocaust, its climax is a direct occurrence of this. The use of the time in various text crawls leading up to the event is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s use of a clock in several of his films, most notably Sabotage (1936) and Saboteur (1942). Allowing the suspense to build gradually, there’s an ominous feeling looming during the rising action. However, Threads takes it a step further in a way that delivers the abysmal shock and complete surprise associated with warfare.
Similar to the sudden outbreak of a declaration of war or surprise attack, an air raid siren sounds as Jimmy goes about his day. The inevitable panic strikes as the mushroom cloud appears on the horizon. A flash, and then complete devastation. The last moments we see of Jimmy are him running through the streets beforehand, ultimately stricken by the panic of what has occurred. Much like the dramatic shower scene in Psycho, the film’s focal point up until now is gone from the film entirely, and we’re brought into the aftermath of the climax’s devastating results. The aftermath is bleak, with closeups of charred remains and what was once Sheffield torn asunder, is ultimately a moment of transformation, with the old vestiges of England gone and in its place a world where anything and everything which was once normal is ripped away at a single moment. Empire is gone and in its place is the onset of martial law. No other scene illustrates this more than the image of a traffic warden, his face obscured like the executioners of the middle ages, and an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. A symbol of authority and normalcy now reduced to a figure of intimidation and order.
It would be easy to dissect Threads as having the limitations of a small budget, due to it being a television production, but in many ways, this is what accentuates the feelings of dread and hopelessness following the onset of a nuclear winter. What ultimately follows the climax of the film is the dissolution of order and the complete eradication of a civilized world. The nuclear winter that Threads depicts is accentuated by narration and text, describing the descent of Britain into a population level and practices of the dark ages. The degeneration of England into a primitive and agrarian society where money has no meaning and education is lost is perhaps one of the most jarring elements of the film.
Looking upon the desperation forces much introspection from the viewer. The lines that separate civilization and savagery are completely gone, as the primal instinct to survive takes over logic and reasoning. What makes Threads vastly different from other films which depict a post-apocalyptic dystopia, is that step by step, Threads guides us through each moment, forcing us to take notice of the never-ending march of folly. The drastic contrast of how life in the first and second act is depicted shakes us to our very foundation. The knowledge of the current situation is one that’s not only a possibility but one completely of our own doing.
In the conclusion of The Time Machine (1960), the protagonist leaves with three books to rebuild society. Threads forces us to look at ourselves and the world around us. It no longer becomes a case of what we can do to rebuild society, but how do we stop it from destruction and degeneration in the first place.