While animation is a vast medium that allows filmmakers to explore a wide range of stories and genres, horror is one particular genre that traditionally hasn’t done well in the medium. Sure, there are a few outliers like the work of Satoshi Kon and Watership Down, but most animated movies and series fail to scare in the same level as live-action and instead resort to gore and shock value instead of fear to impact the audience. The latest attempt at a 2D animated horror movie, To Your Last Death, also relies more on gore than scares, but its tight script and world-building more than make up for it with an impressive movie that evokes Cabin in the Woods.
A bloodied woman wielding an axe walks out the broken front door of a building exclaiming “He killed them all!” and is immediately arrested, just as the mysterious Gamemaster (Morena Baccarin) tells a man to “close the bets” before he touches a tattoo on his hand and literally disappears. Then the screen is separated into three comic book-like panels that show three people brutally murdered, as we fade to a title card and the voice of William Shatner tells us about a game that has begun in the void between the stars.
From there director Jason Axinn takes us back in time three days and we meet Miriam DeKalb (Dani Lennon), the woman with the axe from the beginning. Her father, the warmongering, sadistic billionaire Cyrus DeKalb (a deliciously evil Ray Wise) summons his estranged children to discuss his legacy after discovering he’s terminally ill. Uninterested in a family reunion, Cyrus then throws his kids – Kelsey (Florence Hartigan), a Beverly Hills-type rich kid who is prone to self-harm and is married to Cyrus’ competitor, Collin (Benjamin Siemon), an uptight banker who denounced his fathers mishandling of state budget during his vice-presidential campaign, and wiseass and musician Ethan (Damien C. Haas) – into Saw-style deathtraps modeled in the specific ways the children disappointed their father. The only one to make it out alive is Miriam, who is let go knowing they’ll declare her insane.
While at a psychiatric hospital, Miriam is approached by Gamemaster, who offers to send her back in time to try and save her siblings with the foreknowledge of that dreadful night, as long as she provides enough amusement to please the cosmic gods that are betting in a bizarre interstellar gambling match that involves the DeKalb siblings.
Honestly, the animation and art style will be the make or break factor for many who see To Your Last Death. Like a mix of Archer and motion-comics with a little dash of the Telltale The Walking Dead games, it takes a bit of time getting used to the Adobe Flash-esque animation, but it doesn’t detract from the nastiness of the story. Whether you love it or just tolerate it, you can’t deny the freshness that comes with seeing a 2D animated movie for adults at a time where the market is overflooded with CG animation for children. While a live-action movie could be too over-the-top with this premise, a 2D animated movie is just disturbing and gory enough without being off-putting. That being said, there is a lot of gore that brings to mind the Saw movies – think eye-popping, chainsaws, self-mutilation, and so many severed limbs. Though mostly built as a horror story, To Your Last Death also has some very darkly comedic moments that play like gags from Metalocalypse or even Archer.
The most interesting aspect of To Your Last Death is the world-building. Screenwriters Tanya Klein and Jim Cirile have done an outstanding job fleshing out the rules of the game and the literal table of cosmic gods dressed in attire from different eras that look like a mixture of the creatures from the anime Death Parade and the Organization from Cabin in the Woods. They replay death scenes at will and demand things to go differently for their own amusement, laughing as they watch the petty humans die over and over again. The script also gives a surprising amount of character development to the DeKalb children, who start out as mere archetypes but become fully fleshed-out characters with motivations and backstories. As the story progresses, you begin to care about these spoiled rich kids and their messed-up family.
With an interesting story that introduces a larger world, great characters that the audience can care about, and plenty of variety in its horror scenes, To Your Last Death plays as a great franchise-starter you will want to revisit over and over again. Though the animation takes a bit to get used to, the pay-off is one of the most interesting experiments in Western animation in years.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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