I talked the other day about how deeply affected I was by the threat of nuclear Armageddon back in the early 1980s – the idea that any day could be our last. The movie industry was very much aware of that situation, because not one but three major films came out in 1983-84 focusing on the theme of all-out nuclear war: the enduring The Day After (which generally gets all the publicity), Testament, and Threads.
THREADS is a very small, intimate story, focusing on the residents of a small town about 90 minutes away from San Francisco – particularly on a mother (Jane Alexander) and her three children. When the unthinkable happens, she has to find a way to keep her family going: keep them fed, keep them safe, find as much normalcy as possible. It’s a heartbreaking story, and Ms. Alexander’s performance is masterful. Unlike The Day After, there are no happy endings here – no miraculous reunions, no closing scenes that insist that “humanity will persevere.” There is no hope for Carol Weatherly and her children – there is only love.
The British production THREADS is even more bleak than TESTAMENT (which reinforces my opinion that nobody knows how to do horror like the British). It focuses on two families, one working class and one middle class – but here, the characters aren’t as important as the situation. Everything’s irradiated. There’s no food, no water. Nuclear winter sets in, and the closing scene is truly blood-chilling.
What I generally find most frightening isn’t stories about ghosts or vampires or Michael Myers-type serial killers — it’s stories that make me think, “Man… this could happen to me. It could happen to all of us.” All three of these 1983-84 productions do that, each with a different focus. I’ve picked these two to recommend because they sidestep the (undoubtedly TV network-mandated) sort-of happy ending, the idea that families will be reunited, everything will be rebuilt, and life will go on. TESTAMENT and THREADS are deeply chilling because of their firm focus on things going bad — reminding us that sometimes, when it comes down to it, all you have to turn to is yourself, and the people you love.