If we’ve learned anything from the Final Destination series, it’s that outrunning death is an impossibility. Side-stepping, maybe, but outright defeating? Don’t even bother. Death is the invisible ghost of Rube Goldberg and he’s way too clever for mortal man.
Now that doesn’t mean Death will always take the form of a deceased puzzle-maker—changing his appearance is part of his conniving plan. Over the years, movies have depicted the overlord of finality in a variety of shapes and sizes, but in the end, he always has the same mission: end lives.
So take a deep breath and prepare to stare Death in the face. In most cases, he’ll be capable of staring back:
Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film may not have been the first appearance of Death on film, but it certainly was the first one to feature Death taking on a knight in a game of chess.
The Seventh Seal established Death as a white-faced, black-robed figure who stalked the living, occasionally engaging them in a round of the thinking-man’s game and muttering a few forbidding Biblical phrases. Few Swedish films have continued to resonate through pop culture the same way as Bergman’s film. If you need proof…
These may be the last two films on the planet you would think tip their hat to the Special Jury Prize winner of the 1957 Cannes Film Festival, but really, the homages fit perfectly into both film’s goofy spectacles. In the sequel to Excellent Adventure, Bill and Ted take on Death himself…in Twister, Battleship and Clue. Little less classy.
In Last Action Hero, Ian McKellen recreates the infamous chess scene from Seventh Seal, portraying Death before waling off the big screen (courtesy of a magic movie ticket) to give sagely advice to the young hero Danny. His appearance may not deliver the same heart-racing reactions as seeing Schwarzenegger jump out of an action movie, but Death makes up for it with slow-moving gravitas.
A ghostly pale Death is great for the existential crowd, but when it comes to terrifying, it’s all about Guillermo Del Toro’s Angel of Death. Crossing paths with Hellboy in The Golden Army, the frightful beast sports a mushroom for a head and creepy eyes in its wings. If it wasn’t for his solid smile, his looks alone would send a person to the grave.
When Brendan Fraser’s cartoonist character Stu slips into a coma after a car crash, he’s transported to a twisted limbo world, where his cartoon character creation Monkeybone comes to life and aids him in infiltrating the land of the dead. Few people caught Monkeybone in theaters…meaning few people caught Whoopi Goldberg as the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-esque Death. Sadly, the movie does not end with the reaping of Fraser’s career.
The Films of Woody Allen
Allen has always been one to blend fantastical elements with his reality-based comedic and dramatic stylings—and his relationship with Death is an extension of that sensibility. The Grim Reaper appears in multiple Allen films, including Scoop, Deconstructing Harry and Love and Death. He teaches us an important lesson: it’s a lot more fun to laugh in the face of death then join him in the underworld.
I’m sure most people who find Brad Pitt attractive would be perfectly content with biting the bullet if they knew Death looked anything like the continually-youthful actor. In Meet Joe Black, Pitt’s Death requests a few vacation days to wander Earth and make every woman on the planet swoon. At least they can die happy.
In what might be the strangest interpretation of Death ever on screen, director William Peter Blatty (the author of the Exorcist novel and writer of the film adaptation) chose none other than basketball legend Patrick Ewing as the Angel of Death. Even alongside other angel cameos like Fabio and Larry King, Ewing’s presence is both baffling and terrifying. Does he have the power to slam dunk you into the afterlife? Do you want to wait around to find out?