Genre films are often the last refuge of the hack director, but once in a while they can be the spawning ground for a major new talent. A few years ago, Kathryn Bigelow brought new blood to the vampire thriller with "Near Dark," and James Bond III has done the same with "Def by Temptation," a contemporary black horror film that's light-years ahead of "Blacula" and "Scream, Blacula, Scream!," which established this genre offshoot in the very early '70s.
There are some familiar conventions, but Bond brings to "Def" depth and emotional detail generally absent from such films. He has an advantage, since he not only directed but also wrote the script and stars as Joel, a divinity student from a quiet North Carolina town who experiences some last-minute doubts about his calling.
Joel, sensing he's at a crossroads, heads for New York to visit his childhood friend K (Kadeem Hardison of "A Different World"). K, an actor, encourages the straight-arrow Joel to loosen up, taking him to a slick uptown bar whose male patrons expound every ridiculous macho pickup line imaginable (generally to no effect on the quite-wise-by-now female patrons).
The one exception is a beautiful woman (Cynthia Bond) who seems to have no trouble picking up men, even though they're never seen after they date her. Early on, the director lets viewers in on the obvious: This temptress is a devil, a succubus who lures men into her bed, makes love and kills them, usually somewhat graphically. Joel soon becomes her target, apparently because of both his intense innocence and his calling. It doesn't take K long to realize what's going on, and he enlists the help of Dougy (Bill Nunn), a barfly who turns out to be an undercover cop long on the temptress's trail.
On the surface, this is an ordinary vampire plot, though told from a black perspective and in culturally credible terms. It's below the surface that Bond shines. Except for the occasional gutting and the inevitable confrontation, "Def" moves at a languid pace that leaves plenty of room for personal connections. The deepest is between country boy Joel and city-wise K; in their frequent conversations, one senses small-town roots, friendship, competition and genuine emotion. In fact, some of the film's best moments are sketched out in their casual discussions about faith, urban life and ordinary values. Both Joel and K are immensely likable characters and, not surprisingly, neither genre nor racial stereotypes.
Even the temptress moves beyond cliche. Cynthia Bond, a stage actress in her first film role, floats between ice cool and ember hot. Beautiful, dangerous, sweet and slyly attentive, she is never less than seductive. If the Devil was looking for someone whose sexuality could hold morality hostage, he found the right vehicle.
It's in his handling of actors (including himself) that James Bond III shows great promise: He pulls unexpected things out of them in such an undemanding context, though it helps that they are all good actors to begin with and that he has given them credible dialogue with which to work. Additionally, "Def" is beautifully photographed by Ernest Dickerson, who is best known for his long-term association with Spike Lee.
There are some weaknesses, including the contemporary (for now) soundtrack and the use of singers Freddie Jackson and Melba Moore in minor roles. "Def" is hardly the first film to promote itself through pop cameos and songs that are not essential to the plot, but in most cases, such films lack the substance "Def" consciously aims for. Also, it succumbs to the obligatory loop ending that is both ironic and a setup for a sequel.
The film's budget limitations are also apparent, not only in the use of a very small cast but also in the occasional plot loopholes. As for the graphic climaxes, several are quite effective (including an update on the TV dinner), while others are hokum-hum. There's enough action to meet fans' expectations, but the best shock is the one of discovery. "Def" is not a masterwork, but it's definitely the work of a major director-in-progress. It's both important and incidental that Bond is black, as are most of the crew, and all of the cast. As the Hudlin brothers did in "House Party," Bond has taken a tired genre and made it fresh. Better yet, he's given substantial exposure to some very talented people both in front of and behind the camera, people all too often stereo-typed by the white film establishment.
Def by Temptation, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some graphic violence and partial nudity.