As one of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Death may ride a pale horse, but that didn’t stop him from going solo. We take a quick and furtive look at the many faces of Death! (Sorry, not those faux-autopsy 1980s flicks).
Since Man first became aware of his very limited mortality Death has been personified as a supernatural deity in mythology and religion worldwide. Oft-depicted as a tall, skeletal entity clad in a long, hooded cloak, the Angel of Death swiftly brandishes a scythe to reap unfortunate souls. Be it ancient Greek god Thanatos or Hel, the Norse warrior goddess, we all inevitably face Death.
One of the earliest flicks to feature Death as a major protagonist was the Swedish fantasy film THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921) directed by Victor Sjostrom. Anyone who dies at the stroke of New Year’s Eve is condemned to drive Death’s carriage for the next year, collecting the newly deceased. Its amazing special effects of Death’s skeletal carriage and double exposures belied a complex narrative structure that later influenced director Ingmar Bergman.
Although Lon Chaney appeared in the color tinted sequences of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) in terror-fying full Reaper raiment, he was not Death himself but a portent of ghastly menace to come. Still, pretty damn creepy.
Curious why people fear him so much, Death (Frederic March) decides to uncover the reason in the classic DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934). Death takes human form and crashes a party under the alias Prince Sirki, a charmingly handsome bon vivant. Only the Duke who is hosting the festive soiree is aware of Death’s double identity. Naturally, Prince Sirki falls in love with a beautiful young woman. But to claim his love, she must join him in death.
The romantic fantasy proved popular with both audience and critics alike with The New York Times proclaiming the film “delicately morbid”. It was later remade as a TV movie, a Broadway musical and, of course, a reimagined feature MEET JOE BLACK with Brad Pitt. The highlight? Brad gets walloped by a bus. This sad sack re-do deservedly garnered a 1998 Razzie for “Worst Remake or Sequel”.
Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece THE SEVENTH SEAL (1957) firmly embedded his vision of Death as a pop culture staple. Set during the tumultuous plague years, a medieval knight (Max Von Sydow) challenges Death to a game of chess for his very life. Ultimately, Max loses but not before other characters escape The Reaper’s clutches.
Bergman’s Death match became the jumping off point for multiple parodies, but the best was in BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY (1991). The time traveling nitwits of San Dimas are murdered by their evil robot doubles, so they battle Death to try and regain their lives.
In one of the most hell-arious sequences ever filmed, William “Bill” S. Preston, Esquire (Alex Winter) and Theodore “Ted” Logan (Keanu Reeves) square off with Death, himself (William Sadler), in a best “3 out of 5” championship tourney of “Battleship”, “Clue” and “Twister!” Not only do Bill & Ted triumph, but Death is forced to serve them in their quest.
MONTY PYTHON’s THE MEANING OF LIFE devoted the final act of their film to the inevitable conclusion in the aptly entitled segment “Part VII – Death”. Looking to harvest a few souls, the Grim Reaper (John Cleese) finds himself invited to a dinner party at an isolated country estate. Unaware of his identity, the guests argue among themselves before he tells them they’ve all died from eating contaminated salmon mousse.
Death has also claimed many a soul on TV as well. In the classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Nothing In the Dark” an old woman (Gladys Cooper) refuses to “go gently into that good night.” Terrified of impending demise, she bolts the doors and windows to prevent Death from claiming her.
A wounded policeman begs for help just outside her door. Finally convinced that he’s bleeding out, she relents and lets the cop in. But he’s Death after all in the guise of Robert Redford. Swayed by his looks instead of a scythe wielding Skeletor, she goes willingly with the hunky harvester.
Death was also a recurring character on long-running SUPERNATURAL series. Battling multiple Reapers, monster hunters Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) come face to face with their master, a junk food loving Death (Julian Richings). Often an unwitting ally, Death is the one immovable force in a world of warring demons, devils and gods. That is until, Dean “accidentally on purpose kills” Death, unleashing The Darkness – God’s evil sister! (Good one, Dean.)
Death is no stranger to kidvid either. The Cartoon Network’s THE GRIM ADVENTURES OF BILL & MANDY. After defeating the Grim Reaper in a limbo match, Bill and Mandy use his uncanny powers to adventure in weird worlds.
And while Death may have a design as shown in the FINAL DESTINATION flicks, sadly he does not appear in person. A grim undertaker, the inimitable Tony Todd, is his stand-in, warning disaster survivors that Death has a “checks and balances” list. By films’ end, most end up reaped.
And, hey guys, if you’re a big fan of the immortal mortician and we’ve missed one of your fave raves, fear not. Sooner or later, we all get to meet The Reaper.