Best Portrayals of Death as a Character in Movies and TV Series, Ranked – MovieWeb

The cinematic medium has made for some haunting portrayals of Death as a character. Here are the best movie and TV show portrayals.
Death is the great mystery of life, one that we are all too often glad to ignore. The very nature of it as an enigma, and as the very antithesis of everything that encompasses our life, makes it a difficult topic to approach. But as a fundamental fact of life, filmmakers have often commented upon it. And these commentaries are most interesting when filmmakers personify the very concept of Death. These personifications often take a simplistic turn in the form of grim reaper imagery, crude and lacking any characterization.
Sometimes, however, these attempts reach for a deeper well, producing results that cannot quite be put into words. How does one translate an impersonal phenomenon of reality into a living human? How would this personification elicit the same responses as this awe-inspiring phenomenon — dread, mystery, and unyielding? The cinematic medium has made for some haunting portrayals of Death as a character, the personalities of which act as commentaries on the ultimate truth in their own right. Here are 9 best portrayals of Death in movies and TV series, ranked.
The 1988 adventure fantasy movie The Adventures of Baron Munchausen follows John Neville as Baron Munchausen in a fantastic series of adventures where the line between imagination and reality is completely blurred out. Throughout the movie, we see Baron Munchausen accomplish impossible feats. All this while a skeletal grim reaper, complete with wings and a scythe, is in close pursuit. The fantastic feats of imagination are what allow the elderly Baron to escape the reaper, but the moment he begins to doubt himself, Death closes in again. Munchausen stands as representation for the magic of imagination, the only thing that can keep the reaper at bay in this imaginarium.
The iconic supernatural series The Twilight Zone has had a few episodes over the years that personify Death. A memorable one is the 60th episode from the third season, titled "Rendezvous in a Dark Place." This episode is memorable not just for its portrayal of Death as a character, but also because of the unique treatment this Death receives. It features Janet Leigh as an elderly woman who is literally obsessed with Death, and finally comes face-to-face with him when a burglar dies in her home. Stephen McHattie as Death convinces the viewer of his timeless nature, with an enigmatic, dutiful look ever on his eyes.
The Masque of the Red Death, directed by Roger Corman, is a revered adaptation of the tale by Edgar Allan Poe. It is arguably the best of Poe adaptations by Corman. The movie stars Vincent Price as Prince Prospero, a rich Satanist who hosts a banquet at his castle in the midst of a deadly plague known as the Red Death. The events of the movie move in an oddly hypnotic way; all the while, the Red Death stakes the castle while playing cards. Death, in this movie, is constructed as a heavily allegorical character, and fits in as a perfect menace against the senseless debauchery that goes on in Prospero’s banquet.
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The famed creature actor Doug Jones portrays probably the most visually stunning version of Death in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. The imposing figure of Death in the movie is a perfect representation of the Guillermo del Toro aesthetic. Their presence in the movie is a relatively short one, as Hellboy is brought to the Angel of Death by his girlfriend, Liz, after suffering a mortal wound. The Angel, an impassive steward of time and fate, offers her a choice: save Hellboy, but seal the destruction of the world at his hands at the same time. Despite the high stakes of the conversation, the Angel presents the terms with a soothing performance.
“Eventually, I learned that all they really need is a kind word and a friendly face.” This quote sums up all you need to know about Death in the latest Netflix series The Sandman. Kirby Howell-Baptiste offers a beautiful interpretation of the source material in the series. Just as in the Neil Gaiman comics, Howell-Baptiste’s Death is fully involved in human preoccupations and finds joys in the small things. But her on-screen presence is also striking and otherworldly, fitting for such a hefty personification. The enigmatic glance with which she conveys her identity to every soul she collects can convince you that she could really be the personification of Death.
"The Hitch-Hiker" is one of the earliest episodes of The Twilight Zone — the 16th episode ever, in fact. Inger Stevens appears in the series as Nan Adams, a woman who is on a solo cross-country drive. The trip takes a scary turn when she begins to encounter the same hitchhiker at every stop. The episode masterfully builds upon a sense of suspense and paranoia, until it is revealed that the hitchhiker is none other than death, come to collect her after she died in an accident. Leonard Strong’s performance as the hitchhiker is brilliant and sets the tone for the episode, as his inscrutable eyes seem to convey more than a mere pedestrian horror.
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Meet Joe Black offers one of the most praiseworthy personifications of Death in recent cinema. The 1998 movie was based on the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, and stars Brad Pitt as Death. The movie follows Death as he seeks a better understanding of the world of the living, all the while staying as an uninvited guest to Anthony Hopkins’ Bill Parrrish. Pitt’s version of Death is gentle and has a child-like naivety. At the same time, he carries a sublime and timeless quality about him, making his performance as Death hard to forget quickly.
The Seventh Seal is the ultimate classic when it comes to personifications of Death. Made by the influential filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, the movie finds itself on many reputable lists of all-time greatest movies. Bengt Ekerot’s portrayal of death in this movie has become a timeless cinematic image — an authoritative face decked up in a black cloak, playing chess against a mortal who plays for his life. The movie begins and ends with striking images of Death, first as he sits down to a game of chess, and finally as he leads a chilling dance of death across the horizon. In such manner, Death shadows all the events that transpire throughout the movie, posing them as a spiritual search that lies futile against immutable time.
Julian Richings is arguably the most memorable actors to appear in the fantasy drama series, Supernatural. Over the course of 15 seasons, the series personified every major divine concept including God himself. But none were as compelling as Julian Richings’s portrayal of Death. The actor owned his role with an irreplicable look of utter weariness and disinterest in the affairs of mortals. He managed to uphold Death’s powerful gravitas through even the most banal scenes, including lengthy expositions and while munching away at cheap fast food. The total conviction with which he portrays Death in every context and line of dialogue makes him a fitting top entry into this list.


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