Threads Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
In the year 1988, the tensions between the United States and Soviet Union build to a boil and the superpowers unleash their nuclear arsenals. Meanwhile, the working-class city of Sheffield, England is gripped by fear as their homes are destroyed, their public works are devastated, and the survivors are left to fend for themselves in a radioactive wasteland.
In the early ‘80s, at the height of Cold War paranoia, exploitation, arthouse, and mainstream cinema converged with a series of nuclear holocaust stories. While many of these films were inspired by the sci-fi fiction of the ‘50s and action pulp, like George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) and James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), some were focused on a realistic and sobering portrayal of street-level nuclear war. This small pantheon included Lynne Littman’s Testament (1983), two feature-length mock-news reports, Fred Barzyk’s Countdown to Looking Glass (TV, 1984) and Edward Zwick’s Special Bulletin (TV, 1983), and two animated films, Mori Masaki’s Barefoot Gen (1983), based on the true life experiences of Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa, and Jimmy T. Murakami’s When the Wind Blows (1986). The most widely seen of these was Nicholas Meyer’s The Day After (1983), a made-for-TV melodrama that borrowed and subverted the ‘70s disaster film ensemble format. It terrified hundreds of millions of viewers, among them President Reagan, who reportedly changed United States policy based on the film’s impact. But even The Day After’s world-changing, in-your-face tactics paled in comparison to the second most seen made-for-TV nuclear scare movie – Mick Jackson’s Threads.
In fact, few films of any sort can match the sheer soul-shattering impact of Threads. Jackson’s movie aired about one year after The Day After (excuse my syntax) on British television to tens of millions, then aired in the US on TBS in January of ‘85 (following that, it was rerun on PBS), going on to become the most watched basic cable program of its era. Armed with a serious, socially relevant central theme, it also pushed the boundaries of acceptable violence/gore on (non-premium) television and was utterly relentless. The initial impact explodes buildings and its fire burns away flesh, leaving behind blackened corpses frozen in horror. The survivors starve and freeze, covered in festering wounds and vomiting from radiation poisoning. Doctors and nurses remove shrapnel and limbs without the benefit of anesthetic or anesthesia, and their gory leavings coat the steps of the hospital. Some are executed by police forces, shoved into detention camps, or buried in mass graves. First-time viewers should probably be aware that some of the most graphic footage was edited out of the original BBC broadcast, but the bulk of the horror was readily present, even if a handful of barbecued bodies were deleted.
Threads’ power doesn’t lie only in its shock value, but Jackson’s filmmaking skill. For all of its influence, The Day After is not a particularly good movie. It’s badly edited, awkwardly paced, and, in retrospect, has an accidental satirical quality to its melodrama (for the record, most of the ‘80s nuclear scare movies I’ve mentioned are better than The Day After, but have different creative goals). Jackson and screenwriter Barry Hines (whose work writing Kestrel for a Knave [pub: 1968], the basis for Kes , explains the films Ken Loach-like qualities) take a raw, cinéma vérité approach with minimal side-plotting and zero breaks for levity or emotional release. The characters are relatable in their mundanity – the basic plot is an already a bleak portrayal of teen pregnancy in a recessed factory town before the bombs fall – and the performances are perfectly naturalistic, unlike their Day After counterparts, who constantly remind us that we’re watching a dramatization with their more typified performances. Also unlike The Day After, which, in true mainstream American filmmaking tradition, avoided directly engaging in politics, Threads has a definitive social message and political opinion. In the lead-up to annihilation, the film depicts scenes of troubled Britons, who are at first content ignoring the oncoming disaster, protesting the war and the UK’s part in it. Later, the survivors are effectively held hostage by the martial law invoked by their ill-equipped leaders, who suffocate to death as they argue over rations. Ultimately, society completely breaks down, to the point that the living are no longer capable of simple social functions, like speech. There is no escape from armageddon, for you or your children.
Threads is an important film in the UK and, as such, has been available on VHS, Betamax, and DVD over the years. Due in part to difficulties with musical licensing (see below), it was only officially released once stateside, on VHS tape by World Video Pictures. North American fans were forced to import PAL discs from Europe until now, thanks to Severin films and their world premiere Blu-ray. Severin’s new transfer has been “fully restored from a 2K scan,” according to their advertising. They don’t make it clear if they’re speaking about original camera negatives or not, but I have to imagine that there’s not a lot more they could’ve juiced from the material regardless of condition or source. It was shot for a smaller, claustrophobic ‘80s television screens and is meant to look grim, so it’s no surprise that the 1.33:1, 1080p image is so gritty. In addition, the film was shot on 16mm, so grain granules are large and color quality is muted beyond the already neutral, mostly blue and tan palette. Despite all of the strikes against it, the restored scan still manages to outperform the already okay DVD transfers. Lines are well-defined, textures appear natural, black levels are deep, and the shapes remain relatively tidy, even when soft focus and grain are causing colors to bleed. Compression artifacts are not an issue and film-based damage is minimal, consisting mostly of fine scratches. In all cases, the stock footage of military drills and A-bomb tests is more damaged than the footage shot by the filmmakers.
Threads is presented in its original mono sound and LPCM, 2.0 sound. The gritty video quality is matched by an understated mix that emphasizes dialogue and very specific sound effects – the typing of a telefax, the roar of aircraft, chirping birds, the beeping of a cash register, breaking glass, et cetera. Though this is a natural and relatively flat affair, tonal qualities are pretty rich and the loudest moments (such as, you know, a bomb exploding) don’t exhibit high-end distortion. I don’t think the TV edit of Threads has ever been released on home video, but, as I mentioned above, there were some rights issues with the music, specifically a clip from Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode” that originally played over the intro sequences. That clip is included here (which must’ve pumped up the licensing price for Severin), making it a truly uncut release. Besides this and other source songs, the film refrains from a musical score.
Commentary with director Mick Jackson – This brand new track is moderated by House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films (FAB Press, 2012) author Kier-La Janisse and Severin Films' David Gregory (who also produces behind-the-scenes featurettes for other boutique labels), but really belongs to Jackson and his breadth of knowledge. It’s a good mix of interview, expert commentary, and anecdotal tales that fills the space with only a handful of pauses towards its end.
Audition For The Apocalypse (9:40, HD) – An interview with lead actress Karen Meagher, who talks about the politics of the era, her audition, the secretive and difficult (but always safe) production, and the positive audience reaction.
Shooting The Annihilation (8:37, HD) – Director of photography Andrew Dunn discusses his pre-Threads career, the brief production period (he recalls it being only 17 days), and cooperation from the BBC and local government.
Destruction Designer (9:44, HD) – Production designer Christopher Robilliard recalls the process of finding demolishable locations, dressing up locations, fighting with thieving locals, and other amusing mishaps.
Interview with Stephen Thrower (30:13, HD) – The writer of Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (FAB Press, 2007) offers a substantial rundown of the film’s broadcast history, a different BBC nuclear scare docudrama called The War Game (1965) that was never aired for fear of the audience going into shock, a 1982 episode of an educational documentary series called QED about atomic fallout that Mick Jackson directed (complete with clips), some of the real-world events inspired the ‘80s nuclear scare movies (also with clips), and the film’s overall impact. He also favourably compares Threads to The Day After.
US and Severin re-release trailers
I’ll end with a note of anecdotal trivia: I happened to be visiting family in Maui the day of the false alarm missile warning a few weeks ago. As I read the message on my phone reading “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL,” my mind flowed easily from initial panic to conjuring images from Threads. I hadn’t seen it in probably a decade, but its impact is still just as indelible. I’m not sure if I should thank Severin Films for this oh-so-relevant reminder of my fragile mortality, but they’ve certainly done a great job remastering the footage and have included a bevy of extras to help us contextualize the film, including a director’s commentary, cast & crew interviews, and a historical break-down from author Stephen Thrower.
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