Def by Temptation (1990), unearthed and spotlighted as part of Nightstream Film Festival’s Retro series, is a wildly entertaining story of dangerous women and a community under siege. Set during the buzzing late 80s in New York, Def by Temptation revolves around childhood friends Joel (James Bond III), who is following in his deceased father’s footsteps by becoming a minister, and K (Kadeem Hardison), who has shed his conservative upbringing to live fast and free in the city and pursue a career in the movie business. Joel, undergoing spiritual questioning, visits K for counsel and some distracting fun.
While K has frequent flings and is constantly plotting his next romantic getaway, Joel — still deeply immersed in Christian traditions — says he won’t drink alcohol and that fornication is a sin. But when the pair goes out to a bar, Joel encounters a mysterious femme fatale (Cynthia Bond) and is immediately enamored by her alluring energy. She seems to be the perfect woman — if she weren’t also a succubus, that is.
Written, produced, directed by, and starring James Bond III, Def by Temptation is like a relic from the video store era. But with its flashy style and diverse cast, it provides aesthetic inspiration for Black horror in the decades to come. Paul Laurence composed the music, and the soundtrack is filled with funky tones and hip-hop beats fitting this “wild” New York, a place of forbidden fruits and demons named Temptation, where desire will grow until it consumes you.
The succubus is utterly ravenous and undiscriminating in who she devours and throes of passion quickly transform into screams and moans of a different kind when she feasts. The pacing is uneven as we jump between disjointed scenes of Joel and K discussing faith and the succubus claiming her victims to church sermons about enduring temptation set against the bloody sex scenes. Yet the cinematography from Ernest Dickerson drenches everything in an expressionistic haze to help smooth over the wild shifts in tone and dramatic focus. The eroticism of countless lengthy sex scenes is amplified by moody music and slow-motion montages, determined to strip us of our innocence.
The two pals try to take down the temptress with the help of a government agent (Bill Nunn), spiking her drink with holy water, and willing to go to the extreme to quell her. The effects are cheap and cheesy but are exactly the kind of low-budget imaginative imagery that makes old cult horror movies so beguiling. The temptress preys upon the sexually voracious and vulnerable, transforming men into victims of their own desires; but each gruesome death is a sensuous spectacle of practical effects. Def by Temptation is a striking work of Black horror, endlessly cool in its groovy soundtrack, vibrant colors, and bloody boldness, and we wouldn’t mind giving into its temptations, even if it spells our doom.