It’s not often these days that you see horror films with a predominantly black cast from a black crew behind the camera. Every once in awhile we’ll get a TALES FROM THE HOOD or something like that, and one can always look back to the heyday of the blaxploitation films of the 70’s and find a BLACULA or GANJA AND HESS; in fact, Spike Lee’s recent reworking of the latter (DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS) is really the first and only thing that comes to mind in terms of flicks from the last 5 years. Yet back in 1990, Troma Entertainment (!!!) released DEF BY TEMPTATION, from writer/director/star James Bond III, and to revisit it now is to experience a pleasant trip back to the era, viewed through an time-appropriate update of the blaxploitation subgenre.
In 1990 NYC, men of all ages are doing what men of all ages have always done, be it Brooklyn or Britain: chasing women with varying degrees of success (if one is so inclined, one will never be wanting for stories to about horny dudes). At one particular bar/nightclub, we are introduced to what can only be described as a Temptress (Cynthia Bond) allowing herself to be “seduced” by various men before taking them back to her place. None of these fellows are ever seen again, and from what we see of the experience they’ve been made painfully aware that the woman they were hoping to get lucky with could never be called “the weaker sex” in any way, shape or form.
Enter young divinity student Joel (multi-hyphenate Bond III), coming up north from North Carolina, who is in the middle of having a personal crisis of both faith and confidence. His childhood best friend K (an extremely welcome Kadeem Hardison), who left NC years ago to successfully pursue acting in NYC, is more than happy to let his old homeboy Joel crash at his pad while he figures out if he’s ready to follow in his late father’s footsteps as a minister. Joel runs afoul of the Temptress (who, as we have already seen, K has a brief yet unconsummated history with) and that’s when things get complicated. Throw in a barfly (Bill Nunn) with what can only be described as “game so weak it’s nearly non-existent” that he stubbornly refuses to let go night after night who may not be all he appears to be at first blush, and we’ve got a story here. Will Joel give into temptation and be destroyed by the forces of evil that have conspired against him? Or will his friends be able to — literally — save his soul?
DEF BY TEMPTATION is not a great film, but damn is it a great example of a certain TYPE of film, one that, as I stated at the outset of this piece, we sadly just don’t see enough of. It’s funny and creepy and far from stupid even while it (accurately) depicts the constant that is the stupidity of men led around by their libido. Bond III’s script can’t fully be called “social commentary,” yet he isn’t afraid to touch on subjects ranging from the realities of urban life at the time to STDs and their effect on casual dating to the very notion of masculinity and what is expected from “a strong man,” for good or ill. Some of the exposition is a tad clunky and there’s one reveal in particular that smacks of plot convenience rather than organic character but overall it’s solid work. I’m gonna hammer this point again: this can be a VERY humorous movie, particularly in the plethora of pickup lines we hear from the patrons of the bar. I laughed out loud regularly in these scenes, sometimes as much for the actual lines being spoken (this may be the only horror movie in existence that references a “welfare butt”) as I did at the bemused/exhausted reactions of the women who’ve heard it all before and ain’t having NONE of this nonsense, thank you very much.
Speaking of hilarity, Kadeem Hardison is a truly appealing presence in the movie; handling both the lighter moments as well as serious care and concern for his old friend with skill, he is never less than fun to watch and it’s an excellent reminder of why he was so beloved by some for a time (if nothing else, he’s much better here than he is in VAMPIRE IN BROOKLYN). The late great Bill Nunn, as was his way, is never less than rock-solid dependable in every scene he graces — most of his work in the bar sequences in the first half of the film is pure gold, and his effortless shift into a figure of authority in the back half only reminds us of what a loss he was to the world of film. He’s great without being showy about it, which more or less sums up his very greatness as an actor. Melba Moore shows up in a brief but effective scene as a medium — and, most excitingly, the legend we all call Samuel L. Jackson has a (sadly) small role as Joel’s deceased minister father. It should go without saying that even in a total of maybe 6 minutes of screentime, Jackson grounds his role in substance; his very prescence looms over the character of Joel and his personal struggle with his faith throughout.
Regarding the two main roles, that of Bond III and the female temptress Bond, she definitively comes out ahead. I don’t recall ever having seen her in anything else, not even TV, and I am at a loss to figure out why, because she’s simply fantastic in the part. Sexy and seductive, dangerous and intense (with a withering evil stare that, if you saw it, you’d leave whatever room you found yourself in PDQ), manipulative and cunning, Bond absolutely nails her role. I wish we could have seen more of her. Bond III does not come off quite as well, unfortunately. He’s not incompetent by any means — rather, his quiet, soft-spoken Joel plays as very likeable for the most part. The problem is that he may be in fact TOO passive and unassuming, particularly in the later scenes. He DID direct himself so, one has to figure this is what he wanted, but speaking for myself I wish he’d have come off as a bit more forceful in the climactic moments at the very least. However, it would be unfair to suggest that he comes anywhere close to sinking his own movie, and I should honestly state that some of my favorite parts of the whole flick involved him and Hardison (who Bond III shares an easy, familiar chemistry with) simply talking about life in the big city or what belief means to a person and their outlook on life.
Technically speaking: this is a Troma movie. Let’s move on.
Just kidding (Troma knows I enjoy giving them good natured shit, and if they don’t, they do now) — there’s actually a lot to like here from a craft standpoint, the low budget notwithstanding. If you’re not applauding my restraint in taking so long to mention the involvement of champion cinematographer-turned-director Ernest Dickerson, you should (it was really hard because I LOVE that guy). Dickerson brings every ounce of his ridiculous talent to bear here, pulling off interesting angles superbly and lights everything in such a way that it gives the film a professional, confident look that gives it a huge boost — DEF BY TEMPTATION may not have had the money behind it that other flicks have, but from a photography standpoint, it came to play hard and can stand alongside them with no embarrassment (for the very most part, anyway). You can nitpick with the decisions to lean so heavily on cool lighting schemes and (particularly) smoke machines for atmosphere — there’s even some quick shots from a smoky jazz club! — but to this viewer they work very effectively. Some of the shots may suffer from a bit TOO much of that haze but there’s every possibility that’s more a result of the transfer of an almost 30-year old movie (Jesus Christ I’m old) than any missteps on Dickerson’s part. The sites he shoots (almost completely shot on location in Bed-Stuy and various other Brooklyn locales) in are either dressed very little by production designer David Carrington to provide authenticity, or — as in the case of the Temptress’ apartment — are done so in such a way that is very specific to the era. This, in tandem with Dickerson’s photography, results in a odd hybrid that you could call urban 80’s gothic, or at least that’s how certain sequences feel to me, and I gotta say that I dig it.
Side note: I’ve always felt that the first year (and sometimes even the second) of any given decade still, for all intents and purposes, exists in the decade previous. What I mean by that is when you watch a movie shot or released in 1980, everything you see onscreen still basically marks it as a 70’s movie, from the hair/fashions to cars and settings. Therefore, while DEF BY TEMPTATION technically came out in 1990, I still consider it to be an 80’s movie; if one had no idea what decade it was released, I think most viewers would assume it to be a film from near the end of that decade. And specifically for this audience member, I find that remarkably awesome because that means I get to hear that bump of late 80’s rap (and yes, it WAS rap; hip hop wasn’t the widely accepted nomenclature yet) as well as what would be the first strains of the musical subgenre called “New Jack Swing” alongside more traditional R & B. If you have a taste for that type of music as I do, you’ll love just LISTENING to this flick.
In that vein, the score, from frequent Freddie Jackson collaborator Paul Laurence, gets it done throughout; moodier, eerier pieces coexist happily with more groove-based compositions and the damn thing simply plays. Lemme back up to Freddie Jackson for a second — something that only sticks out if you choose to think about it is the approach Bond III takes to the flick as a whole, and that’s a straightforward horror piece. Do we get a cameo by Freddie himself (not to mention the small turn by Moore mentioned previously)? Yes, we do, but there’s no attention called to this whatsoever. Freddie doesn’t start dancing and Melba doesn’t suddenly break into song; they’re just IN the movie, and if you didn’t already know who they are they’d just be people in this world. This extends to the whole endeavor — yes, you could call it an “urban” flick due to the setting and the characters we see on screen, but DEF BY TEMPTATION has absolutely no interest in parading nothing but stereotypes before us for 90 minutes. The closest it gets is one gay character who feels like he walked straight out of one of the IN LIVING COLOR “Men on Film” sketches, but other than that all the characters — even another gay character who gets more to do in the story — are allowed to just simply be. Nothing here screams loudly “HEY! This is a “black” movie right here!” Everything just IS. We’re seeing these people do their thing, live and die (sometimes horribly), and merely exist.
Which, for me personally, is the way I feel it should be. There may not be one single white character onscreen during the entire running time of DEF BY TEMPTATION (except for on TV for a few seconds) but unless you’re the type of person who keeps score about that kind of shit (if so, continue staying far, FAR the fuck away from me, please and thank you), you wouldn’t even notice that until after the movie has finished. It never once crossed my mind until I sat down to write this piece, as a matter of fact, and that’s something we can’t get enough of in film for my money. Different perspectives and viewpoints, experiences other than our own, are one of the most powerful and educational — one of the most FULFILLING — things that movies can provide for us in our day to day lives. When that comes in the form of an entertaining horror film, be it a period piece set in an English castle off the moors in 1820 or a neighborhood in late 1980s Brooklyn, it’s all to the good. For the better, to be more specific.
DEF BY TEMPTATION is sexy. It’s freaky. It’s fun. I’m a fan, and if you haven’t seen it you might want to take a moment to give it a look — regardless of if it’s during Black History Month or a random night in September. Hopefully you’ll have a good time with something that we could stand to see much more of in film and is hugely refreshing for being just that, as well as an entertaining flick besides.
(PSA: at the time of this writing, DEF BY TEMPTATION is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.)
Tags: Bill Nunn, Black History Month, Black History Month Week, Cynthia Bond, Ernest R. Dickerson, Horror, James Bond III, Kadeem Hardison, Melba Moore, Michael Michele, Samuel L. Jackson, The 1990s, Troma