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Courting Cinematic Death

The return of William Sadler’s Reaper to ‘Bill & Ted Face the Music’ makes us nostalgic for all those other killer cinematic personifications.
William Sadler Death
Orion Pictures
By  · Published on March 26th, 2019

Re-introducing the Duke of Spook, the Doc of Shock, the Man with No Tan, Death himself, The Grim Reaper! Those worried that Bill & Ted Face the Music would skip the less celebrated joys of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and concentrate solely on the nostalgia of the original film can now breathe a sigh of relief. As announced via the film’s Twitter feed, William Sadler will return as that most excellent of bass players. Get down with your bad self!

In preparation of this sequel 28 years in the making, you might want to bone up on your Battleship, Clue and Twister skills. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was a weird little ’80s oddity, but the 1991 sequel nearly ventured into the theater of the absurd showcasing time-traveling terrorists, evil robotic dopplegängers, demonic Easter bunnies, naked alien sidekicks, and a personification of death straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. In keeping Sadler’s Reaper canon, Bill & Ted Face the Music is a promise that the filmmakers are interested in upping the ante. Station!

What has Death been up to since we last saw him? Did he remain on tour with the Wyld Stallyns? No way. Death must not be distracted from his work. If he’s off rocking that bass with Bill and Ted (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves), then he’s not escorting the dearly departed to their final destination in the sky. Or, the fiery, Heavy Metal pits below.

Anyone familiar with the 1939 classic On Borrowed Time understands what a tortuous living nightmare such a proposition would mean for the rest of the planet — strike that — the rest of the universe. In that film, Gramps (Lionel Barrymore) traps Death (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) in the apple tree outside his home. He refuses to let the being do his work so that his sick grandson can keep on living. The problem with such a hostage crisis is that those ill and suffering terrible pain cannot move beyond their situation. Gramps’ selfish act perpetuates horrendous misery across the planet, and eventually, he must free Death from the branches. You haven’t cried grotesquely until you’ve experienced young Pud (Buds Watson) walking down the country road side by side with his final escort.

So, yes, let’s hope Death breaks free from the band to make a few housecalls saving us all from a neverending torment. His Adventure Time counterpart certainly seems to make the gig lifestyle work. Taking the form of a pale horse on two legs (Revelations, baby), the Cartoon Network iteration often scores his souls through a musical battle of instruments. He stole his fashion from the set of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain and finds great pleasure in adopting the style of humanity while zapping them from their current plane of existence. He can rock the bass, but also the drums, the clarinet, and the keytar.

There is a great glee to witnessing Death contained in a more comedic language. The juxtaposition of the dour Grim Reaper stumbling through Family Guy or Monty Python set-pieces is always good for a laugh. Of course, the Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey version is a send-up of the ultra-serious gamemaster played by Bengt Ekerot in The Seventh Seal. Bergman’s concept pits Max Von Sydow’s knight in shining armor against Death via a chess match designed to stall the inevitable. Add in a few extra Parker Brothers tournaments, and you’ve got Bill & Ted‘s comedy gold. Trade Von Sydow for Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter and it’s easy to imagine that the entirety of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was born from this ridiculous invasion of one cinematic tone into another.

Death is a serious business; inevitable and always on our horizon. Childhood films like Darby O’Gill and the Little People perpetrated Death as a villainous wailing banshee all too eager to snatch your loved ones away while they’re sleeping. There is no reasoning or bargaining with such a creature. Scream all you want, when the time comes you will submit.

Often, Death is seen as a judge on your actions. Masque of the Red Death presents several deities that wander into town to witness the last moments of a monstrous prince (Vincent Price) as he parties in the shadow of a poisonous plague eradicating the poor around him. The prince does his best to reason with the gatekeeper but ultimately succumbs to the terminal stare. He has no reason to fear finality; Death explains that the life he made on Earth was hell enough. The next stop can be no worse. Damn, dude.

As you get older, Death is like anything else in the rearview mirror: closer than they appear. You can keep darting your eyes over your shoulder or appreciate the now you’re living. Comedy iterations of Death are more appealing for those on the other side of the hill. Death should not hold the power of Darby O’Gill’s banshee. When the cloaked figure comes to greet us let’s hope he’s sporting the handsome mug of Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black and the enjoyably dim skills of the Wyld Stallyns rapper. “You might be a prince or a little street sweeper, sooner or later you dance with the Reaper.” We mock so we do not fear.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)