It’s not terribly unusual for a former professional athlete to enter the movie business, but it’s typically as an actor or producer, so ex-football player Simeon Rice’s transition from sports into directing is pretty rare. And his decision to direct a horror movie in particular is even more unheard of.
Rice actually wrote, produced AND directed Unsullied, a spin on the rape-revenge formula that stands out for a couple of reasons. First, it features a black protagonist, the only instance of such I can recall for this distasteful exploitation sub-genre other than 1975’s Poor Pretty Eddie and the heinous 2005 Last House on the Left ripoff Chaos. Second, the protagonist in Unsullied actually isn’t sexually assaulted (another peripheral young woman is) — hence, the title — making it more of a straightforward survival tale.
Murray Gray stars a Reagan, a college sprinter from Tampa who’s mourning the disappearance of her older sister. Driving on her way to a track meet — for some reason, alone (Don’t track teams have buses?) and via the backroads (Doesn’t Florida have highways?) — her car breaks down. A pair of good-looking yuppies, Noah (Rusty Joiner) and Mason (James Gaudioso), stop and offer her a ride, explaining there’s a service station a couple of miles up the road. Instead of, I don’t know, RUNNING there, she hops into their truck, and before you can say “chloroform,” she’s unconscious.
She wakes up in the men’s farmhouse hideaway alongside a young white lady, Zoe (Erin Boyes), whose rape she witnesses. Reagan manages to free herself and sprints out of the house to avoid the same fate, her captors in hot pursuit. Thus, the chase is on, and this is where Unsullied really shines. Rice flexes remarkably assured direction for a first-time filmmaker, generating genuine thrills during a chase scene that essentially occupies most of the movie. Though the budget was modest ($1.5 million), it’s not exactly a shoestring affair, so he’s able to throw in ATVs, boats, dogs, POV camera rigs for first-person shots, a nice variety of locales and stunt work that includes fight sequences, booby traps and an honest-to-goodness cliff jump.
The non-action scenes are much less riveting, although the frequent flashbacks to Reagan’s fond memories of her sister do provide some emotional heft — much like the boot camp scenes in Initiation. For the most part, though, Rice and co-writer John Nodilo are smart enough to keep the pace moving, with the chase interrupted only by periodic rests, interactions with locals and instances of Reagan being captured and escaping again.
Unsullied thus ends up playing as much like First Blood or an adaptation of “The Most Dangerous Game” (a la Ernest Dickerson’s actioner Surviving the Game) as a horror pic like I Spit on Your Grave. Typical rape-revenge movies nauseatingly try to mine titillation out of sexual assault, but Rice thankfully doesn’t sensationalize the rape aspect, focusing instead on escape, survival and ultimately, revenge. (Admittedly, though, not having Reagan be the victim of the assault removes some of the believability of her motivation for seeking vengeance rather than, say, seeking the police.)
Unsullied also breaks from horror tradition in its portrayal of characters. The black girl is not a sexualized seductress, an asexual ball-buster nor a neck-craning ghetto dweller. She’s a pretty, feminine, educated, demure, God-fearing (even praying during the film, a rare showcase of non-ironic, non-judgmental, non-“culty” faith in a horror movie), all-American gal who’s so normal, she’s boring. And it’s great to see.
The villains, meanwhile, aren’t inbred yokels, but rather handsome, successful stock broker-types who doff their suits in order to let out their Purge-like aggressions on an annual “hunting trip,” blinding locals to their actions by throwing money around like faux philanthropists.
Interestingly, race is never mentioned, although the image of white men sicking dogs on a black woman they’re trying to rape is pretty damn charged. I guess this is that “post-racial” thing I keep hearing about.
Anyway, like Rice, Gray makes a solid feature film debut here. She comes off as a bit flat and stiff at times, but that’s kind of how her character is, so it sort of works. She excels in the physical scenes, which are a bike ride away from a triathlon, and unlike many actors portraying athletes, she comes off as believable.
Less believable are some of the plot elements, which any seasoned horror fan should be used to overlooking, along with some awkwardly worded dialogue and the exaggerated Foghorn Leghorn Southern accents sported by the villains.
Hardcore exploitation fans might find Unsullied a bit toothless, and the ending is clunky, but on the whole, it’s engaging, fast-paced entertainment that refreshingly doesn’t stick to tired genre norms.