Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: To kick off Black History Month, we’re looking back on genre films by unsung or underappreciated Black filmmakers.
In her book Horror Noire: Blacks In American Horror Films From The 1890s To Present, Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman writes about the “enduring woman,” a Black counterpart to the white “final girl” whose struggle does not begin or end with the monster she must confront in the film. “In Black horror, the monster is often the things that tear black communities apart,” she told The A.V. Club in 2019. “And that doesn’t go away.” One of the most unusual—and memorable—enduring women in Black horror history doesn’t make her appearance until the end of Def By Temptation, joining forces with the film’s naive male protagonist to vanquish evil while living to fight another day.
It’s a film with deep ties to the late ’80s work of Spike Lee: Written, directed, produced, and starring James Bond III in his one and only outing as a filmmaker, the film also features Samuel L. Jackson, Kadeem Hardison, and Bill Nunn, all of whom appeared alongside Bond in Lee’s 1988 film School Daze. Lee’s longtime cinematographer—and a director in his own right, with horror credits that include 2001’s Bones and 1995’s Demon Knight—Ernest Dickerson shot the film, which takes place in Lee’s stomping grounds of Brooklyn. But while the behind-the-scenes credits reflect the Black filmmaking scene in the city where it was shot, Def By Temptation itself harkens back to an earlier period of Black independent filmmaking in America.
Specifically, the story recalls the morality tales of Spencer Williams, whose 1941 movie The Blood Of Jesus brought “race films,” as they were known at the time, to new financial and cultural heights. Both Def and The Blood Of Jesus are rooted in the Black church, and their protagonists both stand at a moral crossroads: Do you stay on the righteous path, or succumb to the allure of sin? Def takes this idea a step further, evoking the contemporary fear of AIDS by placing an innocent lamb—aspiring minister Joel (Bond), who travels to New York to visit his older brother K (Hardison) and get a taste of big-city living at the beginning of the film—in the path of a demon who uses her sexuality to kill.
That would be Temptation herself (Cynthia Bond), a glamorous and sophisticated succubus who appears wholly out of place in the dive bar where K and Joel hang out. Night after night, Temptation sits down at the bar and lights a cigarette, waiting for her prey to approach her. As the evenings wear on, she takes a series of men home to her lair of billowing curtains and iron candelabras, where she repays them for their sins—one is an adulterer, another refuses a condom—with razor-sharp teeth and claws. The troubling fact that the film’s most violent death is reserved for a gay man underlines the social conservatism of Def By Temptation’s worldview; that being said, the idea that sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a transgression in need of punishment is also evident in many slasher films with majority white casts.
Inevitably, Temptation sets her sights on Joel, whose purity makes him not only an easy mark, but a tasty snack. (Spotless souls are like catnip for demons.) As Temptation pulls Joel deeper into her web, Bond ramps up the surrealism, and he and Dickerson stage some nightmarishly vivid scenes full of bright color and smoke-machine fog—a sequence where Joel is confronted by the shambling corpses’ of Temptation’s previous victims is a highlight—whose imagination transcends the film’s obviously tight budget.
Backed by a soundtrack of smooth, sexy R&B and genre-bending New Jack Swing, Def By Temptation is a curio that reflects the styles and mores of its era, to be sure. But it’s also a bold, stylish, and entertaining horror film that deserves to find a wider audience. If nothing else, you’ll never forget Joel’s beloved grandmother kicking down the demon’s front door with holy war on her mind in the film’s final stretch. Behind every sheltered young man who doesn’t know any better, there’s a fiercely protective grandma who has no time for the Devil’s lies.