The great unknown: ‘Def by Temptation’ and black horror B movies

| Film Editor

It has always been a pervasive trope in the horror genre that African-American characters in films never make it to the end alive. In many cases, their screen time is perhaps no longer than the opening sequence, as in the case of Jada Pinkett Smith in “Scream 2” (1997). The sequel, directed by horror master Wes Craven, was self-aware about this fact. In the opening scene, Phil and Maureen (Omar Epps and Pinkett Smith) are in line to watch a horror film called “Stab.” Maureen is against watching the film: “It’s some dumb-ass white movie about some dumb-ass white girls getting their white asses cut the f— up, okay?” In one sentence, Maureen incisively describes horror films, but she is not done. “All I’m saying is that the horror genre is historical for excluding the African-American element,” she asserts. At the end of this opening sequence, both Phil and Maureen are murdered by Ghostface, and that’s it for black characters in “Scream 2.”

Making an all-black horror flick can be considered an endearing statement in an industry that historically refuses to be inclusive. Even more endearing? Making black horror B movies in a subgenre often criticized for its qualitative value. No matter what these perceptions might be, we should be grateful for the existence of films such as “Def by Temptation.”

I attended the Black Cinema Club’s Halloween feature after I realized the black horror genre was largely unknown to me. The first of two films screened was “Def by Temptation” (1990), and that was enough for me to be convinced about the value and importance of this underrated genre.

Directed by James Bond III, “Def by Temptation” can be best described as a gory, erotic, vampire/monster, exorcist, supernatural horror/thriller. This is not to say that the film successfully blends all of these elements into one cohesive narrative. It is more like the audience sees all of these elements on the screen at different points, even if they don’t make sense. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—in fact, that’s what makes “Def” so fascinating.

The film revolves around a mysterious woman (Cynthia Bond) who hangs out at bars late at night and lures men to sleep with her. Then, she kills them. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, this nameless woman takes a shower with a man she has just seduced. Suddenly, instead of water, blood starts showering down on them. While the man runs away, she laughs hysterically. Eventually, she stabs the man to death before he is able to escape. At this point, we don’t really know who the main cast, besides Bond’s character, is.

Less than halfway through the film, we are formally introduced to two characters. One of the characters, Joel (Bond III), had a childhood encounter with a mysterious, supernatural being—presumably the woman—that left him traumatized. When he grows up, he moves from his home in North Carolina to New York, presumably to find this mysterious being, but also because he’s bored living at home. He moves in with his cousin K (Kadeem Hardison), an aspiring actor. Prior to his arrival, K met the nameless woman at the bar but did not sleep with her. K then takes Joel to the same bar to find the woman again. The woman doesn’t seem to remember meeting K before, so she proceeds to seduce Joel instead. K is confused and creeped out by the woman’s strange behavior and decides to dig in some more. With the help of another man he met at the bar, K learns she is not a human. A number of things happen: K tries to kill her with holy water and then with the help of a spirit medium. Despite his efforts, the woman survives. In the end, Joel realizes she is an evil being (we’re not fully sure what type of being) and kills her with a cross and with the help of his grandmother, who traveled all the way from North Carolina, for some reason.

If all of that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Someone else might watch it and get a different take on the narrative because the film throws cause and effect out the window, to instead rely on the shock factor. Of course, this factor, for the most part, falls flat, but because of the campy nature of the film, we don’t really seem to care. Throughout it, we watch a fashion makeover scene between Joel and K, a dubious monsterlike makeup on the nameless woman and even an appearance by Samuel Jackson as Joel’s father. Ineffective special effects, illogical continuity editing and poor performances by essentially everyone in the cast are what makes this a B movie. And that’s great.

The value in films like “Def by Temptation,” however, lies in their ability to take the salient elements of the horror genre, devalue them and repurpose them to make not a movie, but an experience that takes into account its own black identity. The film’s soundtrack, for instance, is full of ubiquitous ‘90s hip-hop sounds to represent an iconic era for this music genre. Similarly, the dialogue never bothers to replicate the tropes that we would expect from ‘90s horror films but rather falls in line with the absurd and humorous tone of the film. This does not mean that the film is free from horror cliches—it’s full of them. Yet, these cliches tend to manifest in the plotline of the film, which is the least appealing part of “Def by Temptation.”

To dismiss a subgenre like the black horror B movie is to deny the agency that black filmmakers like James Bond III carved for themselves in a place where their identities were radically absent. The impact of films like “Def by Temptation” and “Ganja & Hess” (1973) is present in contemporary cinema by filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee who have incorporated different elements of the genre into their own work.

It’s difficult to recommend this film without some sort of disclaimer but, as I learned, going into a viewing without any preimposed idea or expectations is the best way to watch and embrace a film in which one of the main characters is swallowed alive by his TV set to become a supernatural being.