Death and taxes – two inevitable certainties. Yet, there’s hardly a popular film or TV show based on the Inland Revenue or IRS, while our greater fear, our own mortality, features in many forms and formats.
Here’s a collection of some soul reaping, sometimes by Death, personified, sometimes by proxy. We’ve expanded the qualification to include not only fresh souls, but corrupted escapees from Hades and the Devil’s deputies out to send them back.
It seems fitting that we also indicate their birth dates and eventual fates…
The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde inseglet) (1957)This Swedish black-and-white film starred Max von Sydow, (who became more familiar to recent generations in Judge Dredd and Minority Report), as a knight returning with his squire after a ten year stint in the Crusades. The film takes place during the 14th Century; the woods and villages they pass through on their way home are peopled with those suffering the consequences of the Black Plague. They see victims of the plague itself, and victims of the fear it’s caused and cruelty that results. Parades of people flog themselves and each other, others steal from the dead, innocents are blamed and burned.
The knight, Antonius Block, who doubts the existence of a god he can’t see, is approached by Death and told it’s his time to go. He makes a deal with Death, challenging him to a game of chess which, if victorious, will spare his life. The game continues at different points throughout the journey, along which the knight and squire are joined by others, and play prolongs the knight’s life long enough to save a few lives, but there are no easy answers, from Death or the film.
Fate: The Seventh Seal may be the film for which most people have heard of the writer/director Ingmar Bergman. It’s become a well respected classic, and has remained popular and available in numerous forms. In fact, its imagery and story have become so iconic that three other entries are based directly on it, to some degree.
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)In the Wyld Stallyns’ second outing after their Excellent Adventure, Bill and Ted have to escape Hell and the afterlife. They do this by challenging Death to a game or two, directly inspired by The Seventh Seal. But, of course, these two don’t tackle chess, or they’d be doomed for eternity. Instead they play Battleship, Clue and Twister and these scenes with William Sadler as Death make the sequel one of few that are an (al)most excellent expansion on a theme.
Fate: Bogus Journey was the last film stop for Bill and Ted, but remains only slightly less popular among fans of the first flick. Two short seasons of a cartoon version (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures), with neither of the original stars (Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter), ran in 1990 and ’91.
Last Action Hero (1993)
Fate: A one-off film that wasn’t a roaring financial success, but it’s well liked by Arnie fans and a good fantasy take on action films. Ian McKellen as Death was a terrific choice.
Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life (1983)Of the three heavy hitters with Life Of Brian and The Holy Grail, Meaning Of Life is this writer’s least favourite Monty Python film, as it’s more like the sketch show than a feature, but with some very funny, very memorable sketches, indeed. The movie earns a place in any Python fan’s collection, certainly, and is solely responsible for this writer always pronouncing “wafer thin” with an OTT silly French accent from the day she first saw it. It also has a reasonable closing, having started with birth, by ending with The Grim Reaper, pounding on the door of a country home. Six dinner guests are victims of some bad salmon mousse and, after some ineffectual arguing, are escorted to a heaven where they’re treated to dinner and a floorshow featuring bare-breasted angels in Santa suits, with wings. A great reaper entry by any stretch, and this one looks the business with protruding ribs and a convincingly weathered shroud.
Fate: A good enough film in its own right, it plays often on TV (airs next on Friday 13 March 10:00pm Sky Movies Premiere), and is a part of boxsets of Python’s collected works.
Discworld (2006)Two of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of novels have been made into televised film adaptations. In both Hogfather (2006) and The Colour of Magic (2008), Death is a brief, but frequent visitor to the scenes as he tries to take out the protagonist or grabs a few stragglers along the way, quipping in that dry, droll manner that only Death can manage.
Voiced by the late Ian Richardson and then Christopher Lee, our conviction is concreted that older British actors (including Ian McKellen) are always the ideal picks and each has made their short appearances, even if only vocal, into the quintessential Reaper. A Brooklyn accent just won’t cut it, no matter how gruff or refined.
Fate: The existing two-part movies air at Easter and Christmas and a third adaptation is expected (and hoped for) some time later this year. The books remain immensely popular, allowing Discworld Death to live on, sort of, in multiple formats for new generations.
Brimstone (1998)The first of our bounty hunter types, Brimstone was an excellent series with a lot of atmosphere, a theme tune by Peter Gabriel and some stimulating and disturbing stories fashioned around what was, at the time, a unique premise. Hero cop Zeke (Ezekiel) Stone avenges an assault on his wife by tracking down the rapist who is let free. Weeks later, Stone is shot and killed on duty and, because he took a life himself, ends up in Hell. After 15 years there, the Devil offers him a form of parole when 113 of the most evil souls plan a break-out and make it back onto Earth, where each plans to continue with the heinous crimes that sent them south on their deaths.
Zeke Stone is marked with tattoos of each escapee’s name, in the Devil’s symbolic script, which sizzle on his flesh and disappear when he sends an evil soul back to Hades. John Glover played the Devil, who changed rules, added traps and tricks for his own amusement and he was a treat to watch in every scene. Peter Horton as Zeke was just broody enough and played well off Glover’s trickster Lucifer.
Fate: If Brimstone aired now, in the Dexter era, it may have had a longer life. The very dark nature of its episodes probably doomed it before there was a proper home for such stuff. It lasted a single season of 13 episodes. Also, it made the fatal error of assigning a finite number of souls to be returned (113). With few exceptions, number shows – tasks, cast, or titles – don’t last long: witness Cupid, The 4400, The Nine… Sadly, this one is buried so deep you may never dig up an episode again.
Dead Like Me (2003)Bryan Fuller is a guy who’s good with great ideas. The man who’s been behind some of our favourite shows, including Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies, and is currently looked to as the hope and salvation of future Heroes episodes and seasons, was also responsible for Dead Like Me. The show had a small group of reapers charged with extracting souls from people destined for tragic – sometimes horrific – fatalities.
How diabolically clever, though, to assign such a heavy-duty responsibility to a morose and moody 18-year-old girl. Insist she also has to find an apartment (she lived with Mom and Dad at the time of her untimely death) and secure a job to support herself, and you have a setup for some excellent TV entertainment. Ellen Muth was exceptionally likeable as Georgia ‘George’ Lass and she was surrounded by more than capable actors on all sides. Unfortunately, excellent acting, clever scripts and perfect premises don’t always sell enough washing up liquid and, as with other Fuller shows we’ve loved, Dead Like Me died far younger than a good show should go.
Fate: One of the few after-TV afterlife successes, continued fan interest managed to resurrect the show for a last go DVD (which we reviewed here). Repeats of the two seasons can be seen here on Sci-Fi channel on Mondays at 11pm and 3am.
Reaper (2007)Slackers may have a lot of lame excuses for their underachievements in life. But having your soul sold to the Devil by your own parents is bound to eat away at any ambition to make something of yourself. That’s Sam’s plight in Reaper. His parents forfeited his soul before he was born, to save his dad’s life. They promised their firstborn to Beelzebub, but planned to have no children and, in this way, beat the Devil. But the Devil called in his chips with a doctor, who lied and told Sam’s parents they were infertile. Forgoing precautions, they were tricked into having Sam and fulfilling their promise. Ever since, they’ve allowed him to cut corners and take the easy route, avoiding college and settling for a mundane job stocking goods at the Work Bench DIY store.
Add a couple of quirky mates and a love interest to this tempting mix and it sounds like a recipe for a nice light snack of a show. Bring in Ray Wise to play the Devil, who runs hot and cold, friendly and ferocious, and you’ve got a bigger bite to the program. The Devil refuses to give Sam any help, offering only the smallest of details to point him in the direction of the escaped souls he needs to send back to Hell. And Sam’s given a soul-specific vessel to snare and contain them. But, if you’re thinking big, weighty weapons, you’re far off. It could be a handheld vacuum cleaner, toaster, 8-track tape player or other small appliance, which has to be returned, soul inside, to the Department of Motor Vehicles, where a demon (in her day job) takes charge of it from there.
We like Reaper a lot; it’s got a lot of heart, in a not-quite-Chuck way, but has its own appeal and smattering of sulpher-infused laughs.
Fate: Reaper‘s second season started last week in the States. The first season was shown on E4 here and the second season should follow along soon after the US airdates.
The Collector (2004)
In present day, still working away, he has a clock that goes off when someone whose soul is up for grabs has 24 hours left to count down. Everyone he goes after has enjoyed a decade of some particular success. Being an ex-monk, rather than rip them rudely from their mortal coil, the show’s 45 minute running length is mainly made up of helping them find some sort of redemption, mixed in with far too frequent flashbacks of Monk Morgan and his unlucky wench whose hair and makeup is remarkably stylish and fresh for a 14th Century plague-infested village lass.
Fate: With some good ideas reused and wasted, The Collector ran three seasons between 2004 – 2006. Season 1 is currently showing on TV Choice on demand. It seems to get glowing reviews online. We can only guess by those who have never seen Brimstone.
The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy (2001)Evidently, our mortality is such a rich source of material, and so thoroughly engrained in film and TV that it’s now an acceptable subject for children’s cartoons. Friends goofy Billy and snooty Mandy meet Grim, the Reaper while playing with Billy’s hamster, Mr Snuggles, who isn’t looking as frisky as he once did. Grim shows up to take Mr Snuggles away and the children protest. Grim, who speaks with a Jamaican accent, offers a challenge of a game. Sound familiar? Yes, this is our final entry that uses the Gaming For Life plot set 50 years earlier in The Seventh Seal. Grim’s deal is a game of limbo. If he wins, he takes the hamster. If he loses, the hamster lives and Grim will be Billy and Mandy’s best friend forever. Grim sinks to inhuman depths to get under the limbo pole, but Mandy signals the hamster, who launches at Grim’s skull, causing him to lose the game. He then shows up when he’s needed for over seven years of Billy and Mandy’s perpetual childhood.
Fate: Grim, Billy and Mandy are currently adventuring on The Cartoon Network. The series ran seven seasons from 2001 to 2007 with two TV movies in its final full year (Billy & Mandy’s Big Boogey Adventure and Wrath Of The Spider Queen) and an end-of-year special. Another special aired in 2008.
Close, but no sickle:
The Frighteners (1996) is a hard to classify blend of comedy and light thriller with serious subject matter at its core. Although its main villain, one part of a pair, masquerades as The Grim Reaper, he’s later revealed to be a serial killer, who’s returned for another round of murders so he can up his count and killer cred. The film does, however, have one of the best songs of 1976, or the ’70s altogether – Blue Oyster Cult’s (Don’t Fear) The Reaper.
In The Prophesy (1995) representatives of both sides of warring angels play hide-and-seek with the soul of a psychotic Colonel Hawthorne who performed atrocities with relish in and out of wartime. The film has an uncomfortable combination of Christian and Native American beliefs that get a bit too blended, but it also has one of those menacing performances Christopher Walken became known for and a really shivery turn at Lucifer by Viggo Mortensen.
Other films have had Death walk the streets and sidewalks of small towns. Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and its remake in 1998 Meet Joe Black, where Brad Pitt replaced Fredric March, are romantic turns for The Reaper, with much lighter looks at Death and his heavy, weary occupation.
Other reaper appearances:
Grim Fandango (1998) The world of video games is no stranger to the robes of Death, and he’s featured in many titles, perhaps none so memorable as Tim Shafer’s Grim Fandango. A point and click adventure, the game stars Manuel (Manny) Calavera, a resident of the Land of the Dead, and ‘travel agent’ at the Department of Death. These agents are the Grim Reapers of the tale (Manny even has long black work robes and a fold-away sythe to help him in his reaping), and it’s their job to guide recently arrived souls to the afterlife. Virtuous souls, who did good in life, get the best treatment from the DoD, and are fast-tracked to their new unlife on the ‘Number Nine’ train, which takes them where they need to go in four seconds. Sinners, on the other hand, have to walk, making a long, four year journey to their fate. Manny becomes involved with recently dead Mercedes (Meche) Colomar, who has been tricked out of her Number Nine ticket, and forced to make her final journey on foot.
Presented in a very film-noir-meets-latin flavour, Grim Fandango mixes in many afterlife beliefs, and wraps it up in a humour-filled story full of memorable characters. A classic game and a great take on the usually grim Reaper.
Have your own reaper to add? Hit the comments…