The Best Cinematic Apperances of The Grim Reaper

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DISCLAIMER: This is not a series dedicated to proving men shouldn’t cry, or to suggest ONLY women cry and are therefore inferior. The goal of this series is to dispel the pre-established (yet flawed) notion that being “manly” and being disconnected from your emotions go hand-in-hand. Even the most macho of men enjoy and even shed a tear at films, and the sooner we can admit that the sooner the concept that one sex is better than the other can go away. While the approach to these articles is one of light-hearted comedy, the emotional core is valid. While men might be more hesitant to admit it, movies often times have the potential to make us cry, for example:

“Movies with the Grim Reaper”

Sometimes the Grim Reaper – the personification of death – is portrayed as evil, but more often than not he’s just doing his job. Dude’s got a list, and when it’s your turn, time’s up. There are also interpretations where there is no singular Grim Reaper, but rather an army of reapers answering to some higher power. I’m personally fond of the simple idea of an Angel of Death, one dude (creature?) who acts as debt collector to the afterlife. You can’t run, you can’t hide, and at best you can play a few board games to stall the inevitable. Movies love to cast this figure, as it gives form and presence to what otherwise would be a stupid gust of wind (I’m looking at you, Final Destination) Even that franchise couldn’t help but cast Candyman as the maybe kinda sorta Grim Reaper. Let’s take a look at some better Reapers and the emotional films they inhabit.

1. Last Action Hero

Did you remember that Magneto was Death? Bet you didn’t! Yes, Ian McKellen makes a cameo as the Grim Reaper in this awesome film…don’t-tell-me-it-wasn’t-awesome-cause-it-was! Perhaps ahead of its time, Last Action Hero was simultaneously a gigantic meta-joke on the concept of action hero movies, but also of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. The underlying concept is that a magic movie ticket allows two-way travel between the real world and movies. A few inconsistencies and tropes from movies are examined, and it’s just plain charming. Viewers potentially can get emotional at Arnold’s constant guilt of losing his son, but more so at his existential crisis when he realizes his existence is fiction.

Near the end, the personification of Death from The Seventh Seal comes out of the screen and investigates this new world, curious why Arnold’s fictional character isn’t on his lists. An interesting nod to fictional characters outliving their real creators, but also a creepy Death played by Magneto/Gandalf. And when he turns toward Arnold and his young real-world compatriot, it’s enough to chill the boy’s bones. McKellen is so weary and cynical that he proceeds to tell a 13-year-old an approximate time he will die. And he actually seems disappointed to not be taking a life.

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2. Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey

And immediately we go to what is possibly the only “fun” Death character. For whatever reason, the writers of this Bill and Ted sequel decided that murdering them and sending them to hell was a natural story progression. Like many other incarnations of Death, the Reaper offers the duo’s life back if they can beat him in a game. Unlike other incarnations of Death, he’s horrible at it, and loses several different games in a row. From that point on Death hangs out with the protagonists, even joining their rock band in the end. Of course he still makes sure to smarmily comment to a passing smoker about “seeing you soon.” Magic, pure magic…who knew Death could be so much fun at parties, and a great bass player to boot!

The sad part of this is Bill and Ted’s personal versions of Hell, which for my money were way too dark for this genre. Between a childhood-scarring Easter visit from relatives to the fiery fear that Ted’s father wants nothing more than to ship him off to military school, kids old enough to see this movie clearly got nightmares from these scenes.

3. Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Damn, Del Toro needs to make the third film of this trilogy. A beautiful film with perfect casting (shut up, I liked McFarlane), and Ron Perlman doing his best Ron Perlman. The story was magical and walked an intriguing line between keeping humans safe from monsters and realizing humans were also monsters. The emotional part is also where Hellboy meets the Angel of Death. It’s spelled out in no uncertain terms that saving him will end the world, but his girlfriend Liz doesn’t care and asks the Angel to save him anyways.

Some might argue it’s never established that the winged, dust-filled, eyeless creature that saved Hellboy is the Angel of Death, but that’s what IMDB says so…they can suck it. He’s creepy yet reasonable, (and most likely saved Hellboy so that later on he could reap all the souls that the end of the world would generate), but we love him always.

4. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Have you seen this movie? Were you stoned? Hard to tell, right? Somehow this movie is not as widely known as you’d think for a vehicle that not only has Robin Williams and Eric Idle, but Uma Thurman buck-nekkid. I’m not saying you should watch a film just for that, but it’s a pretty big marketing gimmick. Once again, Terry Gilliam submits a surreal film where reality and fantasy blend together in weird and mesmerizing ways. The titular Baron interrupts a play about his life to save a town, but whether he’s actually saving the town or just continuing the play is blurred. Throughout the film he’s chased by a winged skeleton in a Reaper cloak, swiping at him with its blade and shrieking wildly. As long as imagination is encouraged it seems to be far away, but as Baron doubts himself, the reaper closes in.

Any moment of self-doubt is difficult to watch, and the Baron stands for more than just himself. He represents adventure, imagination, and not accepting your fate. Once he starts doubting himself is twice as tough because of what it would mean if he lost. Creepy Reaper, sad moment, mic drop.

5. The Masque of the Red Death

This is one of the older films on the list, and the star is my man, Vincent Price. For those of you not in the know, he’s the cackling voice at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and if you don’t know that, just go away. This movie is based off an Edgar Allen Poe story about a very opulent prince, and the threat of a plague at his gates. The plague is personified by the Red Death, a reaper in a red cloak which is very unique for traditionally monochromatic reapers. At the end, Vincent has more than proven to the audience that he’s a horrible person, so when he tries to reason with Death to no success, we’re very happy about it. Of course, his entire court of despicable party guests going down for the count isn’t bad either.

I like this version of Death that won’t even play a game or reason, but just collects the people that are due. It’s creepy when you have to play a game for your soul, but worse when that option is not even on the table.

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Daniel Epstein
Father, filmmaker, and writer. Once he won an Emmy, but it wasn't for being a father or writing.