A message to studios: Make more animated horror films you cowards! I’ve believed we should be getting more animated horror for a long time, but To Your Last Death, which made its world premiere this past weekend at FrightFest 2019, is just another great example of why it needs to happen…
…Animation and horror are a perfect pairing, because not only are there no restrictions on what can be done with the film creatively, but filmmakers can load the beast up with gallons of gore without angry soccer moms forming picket lines outside the theater. Well, for the most part. The debut feature of Jason Axinn, with a script from Jim Cirile (Banned) and Tanya C. Klein, To Your Last Death takes full advantage of its possibilities, with an insane, pulse-pounding story revolving around a group of siblings who are rounded up and sentenced to death by their narcissistic father, Cyrus (Ray Wise) through means of horrible torture. Making matters more interesting, daughter Miriam (Dani Lennon) and the others find themselves ensnared by a supernatural entity known as the Gamemaster (Morena Baccarin), whose colleagues are manipulating events towards the bloodiest outcome possible and betting on who will survive the night. Let the fucked up games begin!
Set in an office building from hell, To Your Last Death is an immediate adrenaline boost slammed straight into your heart like Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction. The film opens with a scene reminiscent of the ending to Resident Evil, with Miriam walking out with what will be her best friend in the film, an ax, exhausted, covered in blood, and saying everyone’s dead. Pair that with a hardcore, techno-tronic score that made me feel like I was back playing Doom on my old-school PC, and it’s hard to mistake that To Your Last Death is going to be anything but a wildly bloody time.
And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite, To Your Last Death features a drool-worthy cast voicing a lineup of over-the-top maniacs. Aside from the above-mentioned, the film also has Bill Moseley as Cyrus’ difficult to look at right hand man, Pavel, and freaking William Shatner as the brooding narrator, who could read me violent bedtime stories any day. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Steve Geiger as Jurek, a Russian henchman who says things like, “torture about power”. The writers of To Your Last Death make sure that there is nothing even close to redeemable about these villains, going back to old school horror basics in which the bad guys are as bad as they can get, emphasized by Cyrus hanging out in an office filled with robotic security guards like the ultimate videogame final boss. Between Jurek, Moseley and the gleefully evil Wise, these villains are straight up frightening, and will have you on the edge of your seat every time they show up, especially Jurek.
Miriam herself is a badass that I couldn’t get enough of. A political activist who stands against everything her father does, she’s always been the leader of her siblings’ rebellion against Cyrus, leaving her disowned by them, and the focus of so much of Cyrus’ hatred. Her family trauma has her taking pills to keep her from breaking down, and she’s clearly an on edge person. Of course, I would be too if my entire family was gaslighting me the way hers does, saying that the whole Gamemaster thing is in her head. But that’s the response you get when you claim a supernatural deity dressed like a stripper from Hell sends you back in time to gamble on the bloodshed of you and your family. To Your Last Death never allows the audience to fully believe Miriam’s viewpoint, and kept me guessing until the very end.
Coating this odd story of a woman attempting to reconnect with her siblings are gallons of blood that paint the screen red. Honestly, I’m shocked the animators didn’t run out of red, there’s so damn much of it. “Life is a game”, says the Gamemaster at one point, and true to the nature of an unrestricted, violent videogame aesthetic, To Your Last Death is a hardcore flick that is overflowing with eye-popping violence. Miriam herself is like Bruce Willis in Die Hard, disadvantaged and pissed off in trying to save her ungrateful siblings. Armed with just an ax, we’re treated to a lot of up close and personal bloodshed that ramps the suspense up to eleven. And I’m not just talking Evil Dead-type, cartoony gore. This film isn’t fucking around. Cyrus uses the disappointing element of his kid’s personalities against them, in one instance forcing Kelsy (Florence Hartigan) to cut herself in a Saw-like trap. If an animated horror film can make me cringe the way that scene did, it’s doing something right.
Simultaneously the most interesting yet obnoxious aspect of the film is the Gamemaster subplot. It’s also the one element of To Your Last Death that kept me from awarding the film a perfect score, simply because it intrudes so often on the nearly pitch-perfect pacing. See, Miriam is like a Terminator sent back in time to fuck shit up, and the Gamemaster and her pals are like the gods sitting around a table in Clash of the Titans, constantly screwing with things, cheating, and introducing new players. In an early scene, Miriam actually manages to defeat Cyrus, at which point the “gamers” decide that was too easy, and reset the whole thing. It’s a distracting element that becomes a bit burdensome-especially since the “why” of it is so vague-but to the filmmaker’s credit, it also leads to a ton of unexpected surprises that all result in something a hell of a lot more satisfying. I often found myself feeling the same way as the gamers do, wanting to rewrite things for a bloodier result, and the film never failed to deliver on that end.
To Your Last Death is a killer flick that satisfied me in ways that others haven’t this year. If you’re looking for intense, old-school horror that’s allowed as much gore as you can handle thanks to the wonders of 90s videogame cut-scene style animation, then this is the film for you.
By Matt Konopka
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