Stop the clocks – Dave examines the cultural history of a horrifying true story, while dwelling on the second version made for the goggle-box.
On December 17th 1968, Barbara Jane Mackle, a twenty year-old student of Emory University was spending the night in a motel in Decatur, Georgia. She’d contracted Hong Kong flu from the college, and her concerned mother had travelled from Coral Gables, Florida, to look after her. As they slept, a stranger by the name of Gary Stephen Krist knocked on the door, managed to get inside, kidnapped Mackle at gunpoint and drove her to a remote patch of land near Duluth. It was here that he buried her in a shallow trench inside a fibreglass-reinforced box, and demanded half a million dollars from her wealthy land developer father in order to reveal where she was hidden.
The terrifying events of that evening and the days that followed etched themselves into popular culture, which in turn were absorbed by the impressionable young eyes of Quentin Tarantino. The Reservoir Dogs (1992) director has made no secret of his love for the first small screen adaptation of Mackle’s story, The Longest Night (1972). Under the stewardship of Jack Smight (Harper (1966)), it had debuted on ABC in September ’72 and would see elements lifted by Tarantino for both Kill Bill: Vol.2 (2004) and the season five finale of C.S.I (2005), where he even hired Smight’s son, Alec, as editor.
Alas, The Longest Night hadn’t been seen since its original airdate owing to a successful copyright lawsuit filed by the co-author of Mackle’s book, Gene Miller. So when CBS greenlit 83 HOURS TIL DAWN in 1990, a remake of this chilling true story seemed justified.
In the same year she scored a breakout role in Allan Moyle’s Pump up the Volume (1990), it’s Samantha Mathis who’s trapped underground as ‘Julie Burdock’, dazzling with her emotional fragility and raw fear while isolated beneath the ground. Similarly striking is Peter Strauss, who juggles the emotional complexity of the compelling Krist and layers him with a bubbling aggression in a terrifically nuanced performance. It’s Krist’s conversation with psychologist Dr. Dantley (the excellent Paul Winfield) that provides a framework to the film, weaving through the narrative, and giving an engrossing glimpse inside a crazed mind.
The support is a little bland, with Robert Urich flat as the father and R. Lee Ermey far from his usual boisterous self as the FBI agent in charge of the investigation. But, having said that, there’s little to criticise. Boob tube veteran Donald Wrye ensures the narrative moves at a fair clip, and the sheer horror of what Barbara Jane Mackle had to endure is represented in dramatic yet considerate fashion.
USA ● 1990 ● Thriller, TVM ● 90mins
Peter Strauss, Robert Urich, Samantha Mathis, R. Lee Ermey ● Dir. Donald Wrye ● Wri. Barbara Jane Mackle (novel), Gene Miller (novel), O.R Keyes (teleplay)