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death in movies

Don’t Fear the Reaper: The Many Faces of Death in Cinema

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Written by Patti Pauley

As the old saying goes, there’s only two certain things in life; death and taxes. And living in this day and age, I’m not sure which one is more merciful. However, that concept can be argued when it comes to the wonderful world of cinema. The portrayal and appearance of the Grim Reaper himself, or simply referred to as just Death in movies, ranges from light-hearted humor to shit-your-pants-terrifying, and even to a love story that envies that of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. 

Death you lady-killer, you.

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Yes, Death can be disgustingly merciful and on the flip-side, unforgiving as far as the theater goes. But to be fair here, Death has a job just like any one of us average Joes. So we can’t really hate on the guy with the list of who’s due to make that outer body exit into whatever awaits in the afterlife. We can probably compare Death’s 24-hour job with the classic DMV employee. It’s never their fault you have to be in that stuffy, god-forsaken seventh layer of HELL. But we take our rage out on them anyway, and of course, they get the last laugh with that goofy as fuck picture that ends up on your license. You’re just screwed either way.

That being said, let’s honor the Grim Reaper entity portrayed over the years in films with a little list of the spirit’s coolest portrayals in the cinematic world. And we’re going to start off with a classic childhood favorite.

 

Last Action Hero

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Ian McKellen as the Grim Reaper? Come on, in the words of Skeletor, I’d have to be a He-Fool to not include this performance.  Of course, unless you were a child of the ’90s, this film may not hold a soft space in your black heart, being as how it was panned and ridiculed by adults and critics alike, threatening Arnold’s career. Yeah, I suppose they thought it was THAT bad.

In any regard, whether you enjoyed the movie or not, McKellen’s Grim Reaper role is pretty solid, as with anything the man does on film. Death’s fantastic entrance into reality through a movie screen playing most appropriately, The Seventh Seal, is just pure fuckin’ awesomeness. McKellen with his usual charismatic yet slightly cynical vibe he brings to any role plays Death triumphantly. He even scares the crap out a kid telling him when he’s going to die. Damn! Ruthless Ian! Revisit the memorable scene by clicking here.

 

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

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As with Sir Ian McKellen, I could never live with myself if I didn’t include the legendary Vincent Price’s performance in the sadistic tale from the mind of Edgar Allen Poe. Price is at his finest with pure mustache-twirling villainy in Roger Corman’s 1964 film as one sadistic son of a bitch Prince living under the very horrifying threat of the red plague of death at his doorstep. However, when the lavish sadistic party he throws gets crashed by an unconventionally dressed in red Reaper, played by well, Price himself, his ominous demeanor out does his A+ performance of Prince Prospero.

 

The Frighteners

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Look if you can’t appreciate the fine national treasure that is The Frighteners, I’m quite convinced you must be a negative human. While for the most part, it’s a fun movie, the frightening imagery and spirit of a serial killer (Jake Busey) taking the form of the good ole’ Reaper in Peter Jackson’s 1994 film is fantastically unsettling in the best of ways. This powerful pseudo version of the Reaps likes to carve numbers into his victims’ heads, and can even kill other spirits. Plus, Marty McFly vs Death. All other arguments are invalid.

 

Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

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Well, we certainly can’t have a Reaper list without including the salmon mousse from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life! This version of Mr. Death crashes a pretentious dinner party in the seventh segment of the film, seemingly to escort someone at the table to the afterlife. However, in pure Monty Python fashion, Mr. Death as the party refers to him, is bombarded with a slew of ridiculousness and oblivious chatter from The Flying Circus crew, only hilariously frustrating him further into a foul-mouthed Reaper who just wants to get on with the rest of his day.

 

Scrooged

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The Ghost of Christmas Future is probably one of the most unique portrayals of Death on this list mixing the classic look of ol’ Grims hooded black rags with a modern twist of a television screen as a face in place of the usual skull, or in some cases, nothing at all.

We all know the story of Dickens’ timeless tale of greed and redemption and over the course of countless cinematic retellings of Scrooge, Frank Cross’ (the modern Ebeneezer) encounter with the grisly ghost of what’s to be is definitely the most unsettling. Which is impressive for a film labeled as a comedy. Seriously, if you were a kid watching Scrooged, the trapped souls hiding underneath the spirit’s cloak were kind of terrifying.

 

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