I remember DEF BY TEMPTATION (1990) seeming like an important indie movie at the time. Robert Townsend and then Spike Lee had created this excitement around the new black cinema in the late ’80s. This one predates Matty Rich’s STRAIGHT OUT OF BROOKLYN by a month and John Singleton’s BOYZ N THE HOOD by a year, and represents the movement extending into the horror genre half a decade before Rusty Cundieff’s TALES FROM THE HOOD.
Writer-director-producer-actor James Bond III made his low budget story of a vampire in the dating scene in New York, with Troma coming in to give him finishing funds. So Lloyd Kaufman provides an introduction with some fun trivia on the crappily transferred 20th Anniversary Edition DVD, including that he had to take over as cinematographer for one of the climactic scenes. That’s notable because the rest of the movie is, as the credits say, “shot by Ernest Dickerson,” who was definitely hot shit because he’d already done THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, KRUSH GROOVE, SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, SCHOOL DAZE and DO THE RIGHT THING.
Bond says this is the first and still only horror film with an entirely black cast. I’m not sure if that’s true – I don’t remember GANJA & HESS much at all – but it’s worth noting that that’s very rare.
Bond plays Joel, a young disillusioned minister who goes to New York City to visit his childhood best friend K (Kadeem Hardison, DRIVE, BIKER BOYZ), who I guess is supposed to be an action star or something? He’s an actor, anyway, and claims “they got me bustin up heads left and right” in his new “flick.” They both go to this little bar at different times and separately make a connection with the same woman (Cynthia Bond), who we’ve seen picking up other guys and then killing them.
I’m sort of fascinated by the dorky decorations in K’s apartment. He has lamps shaped like film cameras and movie lights, which seem like something a kid who wants to be Steven Spielberg when he grows up would have in his bedroom. And uncool stuff, like a teddy bear wearing sunglasses. He has a rubber dummy of Ronald Reagan behind the TV, which at one point comes to life, but otherwise it’s unclear why he would have it. Which makes it kind of endearingly real – real people have weird crap laying around sometimes.
This woman they both think they’re in love with (only called “Temptress” on the credits) creates tension in the friendship, and then K notices she doesn’t cast a reflection in a mirror. A funny idea is that when he tells the story to this dude Dougy (Bill Nunn, CANDYMAN: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH, not long after his iconic role as Radio Raheem), who we’ve seen striking out at the bar for the whole movie, Dougy reveals that he’s actually a secret government agent undercover in the dating scene to track a series of supernatural killings.
They go to a psychic (singer Melba Moore), who says they’re dealing with “An ancient demon. And its name is Temptation” before being suddenly possessed by her.
Here we learn that Temptation is not all-powerful – in order to speak through the psychic she has to get up to go to the bathroom during her date with Joel at a pastry shop.
Nunn is pretty funny with some apparently improvised lines where he, for example, tries to pick up a woman by bragging about being a martial artist working on a new movie with Bruce Lee. Maybe he’s intentionally telling bad lies to weed out the women who aren’t trying to kill him. Hardison gets a couple laughs too and is as charming as he was on A Different World. Yes, he wears round sunglasses, but they are not flip-ups. Hardison is one of those actors who seems like he deserved a movie career that we wouldn’t allow him because we associated him too much with a successful TV portrayal.
But it’s mostly a serious horror movie, and I’m sorry to say that it’s one without much rhythm, momentum or compelling storytelling. There are awkward moments like when they apparently didn’t have an exterior shot to represent the passage of time between conversations, so they use an intertitle.
What is this, a silent movie? And what’s with the quotes?
And it’s a little light on horror. There are some good horror images early on. She’s having a sexy shower with a bartender she picked up and the water turns to blood. And Joel has some creepy nightmares about his preacher father (Samuel L. Jackson) being haunted by a mysterious veiled woman before his death.
(Note: Kaufman claims on the intro that it’s “the debut acting performance of none other than Samuel L. Jackson,” which is only true if you don’t include TOGETHER FOR DAYS, THE EXTERMINATOR, RAGTIME, MAGIC STICKS, EDDIE MURPHY RAW, COMING TO AMERICA, SCHOOL DAZE, DO THE RIGHT THING or SEA OF LOVE. He was getting alot of work around this time – his other 1990 movies are A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM, BETSY’S WEDDING, MO’ BETTER BLUES, THE EXORCIST III, GOODFELLAS and THE RETURN OF SUPERFLY.)
There is some pay off at the end. She finally starts monster-ing out a little. And some weirdness like a VIDEODROME moment where K gets pulled into his TV.
I think my favorite part is when Dougy tries to flee in a taxi, but the driver turns out to be some kind of demon (see also: GHOSTBUSTERS), and there’s another passenger who turns and…
What the fuck, is that supposed to be an alien? I don’t know, but whatever it is I like it. That guy is like the HELLRAISER Engineer of the DEF BY TEMPTATION mythos. I bet if they made ten sequels we’d still never get an explanation of who he was.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the middle part of the movie is strong enough for this to be a successful slow burn. But some seem to disagree. It definitely occurred to me that I would enjoy it more if it had a better transfer, so I was glad to read that Vinegar Syndrome is releasing a special edition at the end of this month. I should’ve waited. I’m sure their loving remaster will do wonders for the atmosphere and all of Dickerson’s light beams in smoke. There are some really nice images interspersed throughout, like this weird fantasy sequence where they’re gonna make love with live saxophone accompaniment:
Or this beautiful shot that inspired the entire movie BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA:
Let’s talk about the title for a second. Obviously “def” was a slang term of the hip hop era meaning the same thing as cool or dope. (See also Def Jam, but not Def Leppard – that’s different.) If we are to take the phrase “def by temptation” literally, I don’t think that would make any sense. So I assume that it’s a play on “death by temptation,” these victims being tempted by a demon named Temptation, and ending up dead. But is “death by temptation” really a phrase? Not that I’m familiar with. If it was, like, DEF WISH or something I would know what it meant. “Ah ha, it’s like DEATH WISH, but for people who listen to Kool Mo Dee.” DEF BY TEMPTATION I don’t get. Also if it’s supposed to be the hip hop version of “death by temptation,” it should have some more prominently featured hip hop on the soundtrack.
I don’t know man. I don’t think it makes any sense and I don’t think it sounds good. So it is not my favorite title. I do rate it much higher than MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM, at least.
Another random thing I wanted to mention: does this dedication at the end kinda come off as gloating?
The last James Bond had been a child actor on the TV series The Red Hand Gang and episodes of The Love Boat, Wonder Woman, The Waltons, Tenspeed and Brown Shoe, etc. He raised the money for DEF in between filming scenes as Monroe in SCHOOL DAZE, where he also worked with Nunn. But he has not acted or directed again, only executive producing a few things and founding a company called Underground Railroad Company, which describes him on its mostly broken websight as “maverick media mogul James Bond III, an entertainment veteran and critically acclaimed filmmaker.”
He seems to be interested in a comeback. IMDb credits him as a cast member and executive producer of an allegedly upcoming zombie movie called TRANSIT, but it’s listed as “Status: development unknown” as of July 2017. His Facebook page includes a teaser banner with the questionable claim “Some call him the black Hitchcock. Some call him the maestro of suspense. Either way… he’s back! More clues coming…” (Not updated in over a year.) In a 2016 interview with the podcast Geek Soul Brother he said that he was working on some sort of DEF BY TEMPTATION followup that sounded like a sequel but he didn’t want to say if it was that or a remake or what.
If such a thing comes about, I think the most important thing to update would be the gender issues. I think it’s fair to say the subtext of the original is pretty misogynistic. Even though religious Joel is specifically not trying to get laid, he’s very much following this hollow view of love where he’s just trying to find a beautiful woman to impress. Bible thumping Grandma (Minnie Gentry, BLACK CAESAR) is the closest thing to a three dimensional female character, and that would be a generous description. Otherwise you just got the psychic and the women that get hit on at the bar, credited as “Lady.” (Lady #6 is Michael Michele, later on Homicide: Life on the Street.) And the story of Temptation is very much a chauvinistic young-man-in-the-late-’80s idea of women as these dangerous creatures that lure you in with sex but it’s a trap so they can use you.
So I think there’s some justice in the fact that the actress who brought such vivid life to this stereotype of dangerous female sexuality went on to greater achievements. Cynthia Bond only guest starred on TV shows for a few years before quitting acting. Years later, she said she “never was completely comfortable as an actress. Never.” Instead she focused on writing, and in 2014 her debut novel Ruby was released, becoming a New York Times bestseller and Oprah Book Club 2.0 selection. Promotional materials describe it as “a transcendent novel of passion and courage,” but from what I’ve read it does contain something of a magic realism element involving a demonic creature, so maybe it even has minor parallels to the movie that used to be her claim to fame.
(By the way, Cynthia Bond is not related to the James Bonds, but she is a cousin of Julian Bond, who was a Georgia state legislator, NAACP chairman and first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He also hosted Saturday Night Live, was in GREASED LIGHTNING, and played himself in the mini-series King and the movie RAY.)
Cynthia founded something called the Blackbird Writing Collective and teaches writing to at-risk and homeless youth. She’s still working on part 2 of the Ruby trilogy, and I bet we’ll see it before DEF BY 2MPTATION.