Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month we’re joined by multi-multi-multi-hyphenate horror journalist Zena Dixon, a.k.a. The Real Queen of Horror. For those few of you who aren’t familiar with Dixon, let me see if I can get through her list of bona fides in one paragraph: (deep breath) in addition to her website that features news in the horror genre, Dixon hosts a YouTube channel that celebrates all of her favorite flicks. She’s also one of the hosts of the Bloody Disgusting Podcast, and, when she gets a few minutes here and there she also makes her own short films.
Dixon selected this month’s film, James Bond III’s Def by Temptation, for a pretty simple reason: she adores it. And after giving it my first watch, I have to say I get the love for this cult classic that features cinematography from the great Ernest K. Dickerson and some surprisingly big names for such a DIY effort. The film follows Joel (Bond, who also stars), a young minister who travels to NYC to find himself and spend time with his childhood friend, K (Kadeem Hardison). While there, he catches the attention of The Temptress (Cynthia Bond), a succubus who feeds off local men in the area and who sees the virtuous Joel as a truly tempting meal. As Joel starts to succumb to Temptress’ charms, K finds an unlikely ally in Dougy (Bill Nunn), a seemingly hapless barfly who turns out to be a cop specializing in supernatural cases.
As is the case for most horror fans and their favorite flicks, Dixon recalls falling in love with Def by Temptation early. Perhaps a little too early.
I watched this movie when I was way too young, because it came out in like 1990, right? So, I remember watching it probably at like four or five years old. And this movie just stuck with me for years... the angles, the visuals, and the colors. Even just the storyline, we don't have a lot of succubus horror movies. For three or four-year-old Zena, this really creeped me out, it scared me. But there’s something that I loved about it... this is one of the movies that made me want to get into film and be a director. I love the visuals and the direction of the story that much. It's just always been something that stuck with me. I remember going back and rewatching it (I'm a little bit obsessed with the movie, I'm not gonna lie), so whenever I meet someone who's never seen the movie befor,e I want to experience the first time as well.
As a first-timer, what jumped out at me is just how unique it felt. Seeing that it was a Troma release established a few expectations, i.e. low-budget, wacky premise, lots of winking to the camera. But while there were certainly elements of that, Bond’s approach seemed different. While he does incorporate humor, he’s also trying to tell a scary, compelling story. And for Dixon, that harkens back to Troma’s early days.
I'm someone who, as a huge Troma fan, I know what it means and what comes with Troma films. They’re silly, over-the-top, kind of ridiculous movies. But once upon a time, Troma had horror movies with a serious tone. I was really into Troma as a teenager, and I remember circling back to this movie, and it had been a couple of years since I'd seen it. First, you have the fact that it is an all-Black cast. That is something you didn't see all the time, especially back then... because that's like the early ’90s. But then not only that... with the cast being Black, that's not what it's mainly about, you know what I mean? There's more to the story than that. It's ultimately about a succubus, a demon named Temptress, who's after this man named Joel who is pure and innocent. And he's the last of his kind, so for that demon, for the succubus, that's like the ultimate goal.
[Black people] would normally receive non-horror movies, people in impoverished environments, that was the focus. This is pure and utter horror. And then on top of that, this was during the early ’90s through the lot of things going on with AIDS and HIV, so they were kind of giving a nod to that. The succubus, Temptress, she even says to one guy how she “gave him something that you can't get rid of.” And it was just kind of like, “Whoa!” And again, as a kid that just flew over my head, but when I watched it as a teenager, again, you started picking up more of these things.
Dixon is also fascinated by how Bond kind of came out of nowhere with this movie, as it’s the first and last directorial effort from the former child actor. Dixon was so intrigued, in fact, that she reached out to Bond for an interview back in 2016. She found out a lot about Bond’s process, including his knack for networking to bring in some really great talent to support the film, such as the music.
The soundtrack is amazing. When I talked to [Bond], he said that he actually made a deal with this company, I cannot remember the name of the company, but they had a lot of singers like Freddie Jackson and Melba Moore to actually have a little role. And a lot of their music is played in this film, but they also partly paid for some of the film, which I thought was just awesome because James Bond III was a child actor, so he made all these connections after we were used to seeing him as a little kid or from his role in School Daze.
Bond was really able to leverage his time on School Daze, as he pulled in a lot of the actors from the Spike Lee film to star in Def by Temptation, including Kadeem Hardison, Samuel L. Jackson, and the late, great Bill Nunn. As Dougy, Nunn is a standout for Dixon, as he plays the fool for most of the film before we realize he’s actually working undercover.
I really love him. I love the fact that he was hitting on women and just telling them any old thing, clearly not believable. And I like when the women get together and they're like, “Well, he told me yesterday that he was a pilot!”
That whole time he's there keeping an eye on the woman, so he actually really didn't want any other women. He didn't really want any other phone numbers, so then where he’s just being crazy and ridiculous, I guess he just wanted to laugh. Like when he said to the girl, “You have lips like wine and I want to get drunk tonight.” And she just throws a drink in his face, it just always makes me laugh... So you know, rest in peace Bill Nunn. He was such a phenomenal actor.
Of course, we can’t talk about Def by Temptation without talking about Temptress herself, Cynthia Bond. I was stunned to find out that Bond doesn’t have much by way of acting credits to her résumé, and has primarily made a career as an author. She’s got such a natural presence in this movie, carrying the pivotal role with a sinister grace that’s enthralling to watch. Dixon explains that her presence may stem from the fact that she got really into the role and committed fully to becoming Temptress.
I should tell you, this woman is so awesome in this movie. Her facial expressions, the way that they change, it still just gives me chills. I fully just believe that she is The Temptress. [James] Bond told me that it was his first time meeting her, and that he’d never met her before [casting her]. He knew that she was an author, but that she was trying to get into acting. I think that this was like her second role. I don't remember the name, but she was on a series in the late ’80s and then afterward I remember seeing her in the movie Higher Education. I know there's a series, I don't know if she's in the series or not, but she was in the movie. And I remember seeing her and it was just crazy because she kind of looked the same, except she didn't look dark and evil. But he told me, and this is like the biggest compliment, that she was really, really into her role. He remembered that she came to the audition, and she blew them out of the water. And before they could tell her, “Hey, you got the role,” he said they turned around and she was gone! I guess she was going method.
Another aspect of the film that makes it so interesting is in the way it weaves Christian themes into this bonkers succubus tale. Dixon is a fan of movies that weave religious themes into their narratives, citing REC 2 as another big favorite of hers.
In Def by Temptation, some of those themes come with potentially problematic issues. For example, at the core of the story is the evil woman seducing the righteous man, and homosexuality is played more as a trope than anything else. But there’s also a depiction of Christianity, particularly through Joel’s grandmother, that’s more in line with Dixon’s experience with religion, where connection to faith is important without being oppressive.
I know how sometimes it can be, or even just how we see it in movies, if there's a Christian character, they're always annoying and that's the only thing that they talk about. But again, growing up, my parents were very open with us. We were Christian, but they let us explore for ourselves, they were very liberal. I just remember whenever I saw Christians on screen it was always something negative, and I never personally experienced that. However, I do know of some people who are actually like that, and I'm not saying that this is what these movies are trying to portray, but that does always make them a negative person. Just sometimes you never know how people grow up, and the true people, true evils in the world.
[My parents and grandparents] were really big on religion for us... With a lot of movies that have to do with religion, sometimes I feel that it's hard for me to watch because growing up in my household with my parents, with my grandparents, they put such an importance on your relationship with God. And I know it sounds off because I know some Christians say, “Well, you shouldn't watch horror movies or supernatural things.” But I know with my parents, even though they were Christian, they were very independent, and they let us express ourselves. When it comes to this movie, when it comes to the character Joel or even with his grandma, she is putting such a strong force on him, such a strong hand on him to try and make sure that he is on that right path. You can't always control things. There's a lot of things that we cannot control, and in fact that was a major theme, so underneath the gore, the violence, the humor, this is just a movie that I feel has a fight, a struggle between good and evil.
Dixon adds that Def by Temptation explores the crossroads of religion and culture.
In this movie, I think the director was able to perfectly tap into it, and that's what made it so effective for me. Because you never know, like my father, as an example, he's from Jamaica and it's a part of his culture where there are certain things that they believe in. Certain people would find it silly, and that's not how everybody is, but the majority of people in his culture and his family... this is stuff that they believe. For example, after someone dies, they feel the need to rearrange the room because they feel like the spirit might come back. They feel they need to cleanse the space. Or if you hear someone who's not alive, if you hear them speaking to you, even if you're dreaming, you're not supposed to talk to them... there's a lot of things like that.
For her part, Dixon thinks there’s a lot more to explore in the universe that Bond created, both narratively and thematically. Unfortunately, based on discussions she’s had with him, it doesn’t seem like there’s anything set for future installments. But even if Bond isn’t at the helm, Def by Temptation is a story ripe for a reimagining.
I asked him, “Are we ever going to get a sequel? Did you ever have anything in mind for a sequel?” He said that he was working on the sequel, and he said he actually had some people who did approach him who did want to reboot it. He didn't feel like it was the right time, or he would read the scripts and they didn't fit with what he wanted. It's just so insane because it feels like he has this whole series just based on this one.
And it's just so crazy that he had this film in him, and I feel like as someone who... I know what kind of horror really gets to me: deals with demons, succubi, and religion. It's so crazy because it has everything that I love about horror, all in this one little movie. And again, I know that this movie isn’t perfect, but I always think about remakes regardless of how some people feel about them. I feel like this movie would be so great, but it would be so awesome to see a reboot of this movie and then even actually give us a series like I feel like we should have had, because even with the ending, there's an open door for that.
[Image Credit: Above image from Def By Temptation via Vinegar Syndrome.]