Trying to find Ten Reapers without the Cloak and Scythe was as easy as trying to find a bilingual, three-legged mountain goat rocking a sweet mullet. As the old saying goes, there’s only two certainties in life: death and taxes. If Death has many faces, the portrayal and appearance of the Grim Reaper/Death himself in mainstream media has ranged from light-hearted humour (Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey 1991) to pant soiling terrifying territory. (am I the only one still traumatised by the depiction of death in 1927’s Metropolis?)
But most of the time, the ‘ol bony faced soul collector is usually conjured as an ethereal figure swinging a scythe, wearing black robes with a skeletal form. And someone that likely listens to Dolly Parton on repeat. Listen, we know he has a job to do just like the rest of us, but we’re officially in spring now, let’s try and envision The Reaper with more flair in his get-up. That’s why I present to you, dear reader, a top ten list of Mr. Death without the cloak and scythe.
That reminds me…I should really get my taxes sorted out soon…
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10. Monkeybone (2001)
I know, right? I bet you weren’t expecting this Coolworld/ToonStruck vibey film about an artist who falls into a coma and enters a nightmarish landscape to be on the list. But you know what, Brandan Fraser has been trending on twitter recently for just generally being an awesome guy, so let’s roll with it. Bored of the usual depiction of the death look, Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) director Henry Selick decided to funk things up in this part-animated adult fantasy movie – picking Whoopi Goldberg to play Death with a leather cone hat, eyepatch and a pet pug in a luchador mask. And what’s cuter than a pug in a luchador mask? Nothing, I tell you. Nothing.
9. Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
Even Death needs a bit of lovin’ sometimes, so we’re winding back the metaphorical celluloid clock with this black and white golden oldie. After decades of questioning why people fear him so much, Death takes on human form as Prince Sirki (Fredric March) for three days so that he can mingle among mere mortals and find an answer. However, events soon spiral out of control as Death falls in love with the beautiful young Grazia (Evelyn Venable) and must decide whether to seek his own happiness or sacrifice it so that Grazia may live. Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and its remake in 1998’s Meet Joe Black, where Brad Pitt replaced Fredric March, are romantic turns for The Reaper, treading a more whimsical approach to The Reaper’s otherwise grim occupation.
8. Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)
In this sequel to the popular fantasy film, Hellboy (Ron Perlman) is trying to save the world from a kingdom of mythical creatures, led by Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) against humanity to rule the Earth. In a battle with Nuada, Hellboy suffers a mortal wound and so the B.P.R.D. team take him to meet the Angel of Death at the heart of the Golden Army’s location. Just like his other films, del Toro conjures a wildly imaginative creature that is unlike any depiction of the Reaper seen before and is both a stunning and grotesque beast with a heart full of dust and sand, eyes on its wings and a face of cracked bone. Much like The Pale man in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), you’ll likely be watching this fantastical beast through the gaps in your fingers…
7. Dead Like Me (2003)
Who said we only had to stick to film to see a version of Death onscreen? Bryan Fuller’s TV show had a small group of reapers charged with extracting souls from people destined for tragic fatalities. The twist? The main reaper is a morose and moody 18-year-old girl. After being hit on the head by a toilet seat, a young temp clerk struggles with the inherent responsibility of claiming souls. Add the mundanities of the afterlife such as finding an apartment and securing a job are just some added extra grievances for Georgia. Ellen Muth was exceptionally likeable as Georgia ‘George’ Lass, but unfortunately even with a tight script and great acting onscreen the numbers just didn’t come through and Dead Like Me followed the reapers into the afterlife.
6. Meet Joe Black (1998)
I mean, if you’re the Grim Reaper and you fancy visiting earth in a meat suit it would make sense to take the appearance of Brad Pitt, ammaright? In this reimaging of 1934’s Death Takes a Holiday (see Number 9) this adaptation gives Death some serious mojo as Pitt practically smoulders in every scene. Tasked with ushering Sir Anthony Hopkins to the other side, he starts to fall for his daughter. It’s a tad creepy concept, but this was the late 90’s. Also a cautionary tale about looking both ways before crossing the road…
5. Watership Down (1978/2018)
Death comes in many forms, even with animals. How was this supposed to be for kids, I tell ya? Forget the eye gouging and ultra-violence with the flappy eared, nose twitching animals, the eeriest scenes in Watership Down all involve the Black Rabbit Of Inle’ – the woodland Reaper who ferries Hazel to the great hutch in the sky. Both film versions are animated, so if you’re a parent you may want to check out the adult themes before playing this for little Timmy and Suzie.
4. Deathnote (2006-2007)
A battle between the world’s two greatest minds begins when Light Yagami finds the Death Note, a notebook with the power to kill, and decides to rid the world of criminals. The reapers in this manga series (and subsequent film versions) are the Shinigami, extradimensional creatures bored with their eternal soul collecting, so drop the Deathnote to Earth just for the giggles. Inhuman in their look and powers, the Shinigami are connected by The Deathnote. The moral ambiguity of the anime gives it a unique feel among others of its kind.
3. Final Destination (2000-2011)
The inventive concept of creating a great slasher with no killer was the main focal point of the Final Destination series. With no real person to blame and nobody to see or hear was an effective spinechilling twist within the teen horror genre. The usual concept involved a teen envisioning their death and then following the hapless group as they literally try to avoid Death. Although the Grim Reaper is never seen or heard – there’s still an ethereal feel to the franchise as comical, fantastical and grim deaths stack up throughout. One thing’s for sure, whenever I’m on the highway I never follow behind a truck loaded with wooden tree trunks…
2. Grim Fandango (1998)
The world of video games is no stranger to the depiction of Death, and he’s featured in many titles, but perhaps none so memorable as Tim Shafer’s Grim Fandango. Any fan of Shafer’s work, from Day of The Tentacle, to Psychonauts, will immediately feel at home with the humorous script and warped aesthetic throughout. A point and click adventure game, Manuel (Manny) Calavera is our Reaper protagonist, a resident of the Land of the Dead, and ‘travel agent’ for the Department of Death. It’s his job to guide recently arrived souls to the afterlife. The four-year tale follows Manny as he attempts to work off spiritual debts by selling expedited afterlife travel to paradise (heaven) so he can eventually get there himself is a gripping one, packed with film-noir-meets-latin influences and a stellar jazzy soundtrack. A classic game and a great take on the usually grim Reaper.
1. The Twilight Zone – One For The Angels (1959)
One for the Angels was the second Twilight Zone episode aired from the first series and showcases everything great about The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling based the episode off an old teleplay he did with the same title, but specifically wrote this new version for the star of the episode, Ed Wynn. (You may remember his voice as The Mad Hatter in the original Alice in Wonderland Disney animated film). Mr. Serling himself could have played Mr. Death in this episode, as he’s dressed in a fashionable suit with slicked back hair. You empathise with Wynn’s character in this, as he’s a likeable albeit worrisome type of salesman. In this episode, Mr. Death approaches a toys salesman and tells him he’ll die at midnight. With his life on the line, the salesman strikes a deal with the grim reaper to make one great last pitch before his time is up. In this instance, Death is portrayed as a shrewd businessman who is meticulous with his count, and one who is unlikely to renege on a deal. It also has a great ending, with a redemptive arc.
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