Family functions often go awry, but few end up quite as bloody as that of the DeKalb clan in To Your Last Death, a crowdfunded time travel splatter story billed as the world’s first feature-length animated horror film.
When warmongering megalomaniac Cyrus finds out he’s terminally ill, he summons his estranged children to his corporate headquarters to discuss his legacy. His paternal instincts, however, are a little askew, and the DeKalb kids— Kelsey, a Beverly Hills-type prone to self-harm, Collin, an uptight banker who publicly denounced his father’s handling of the state budget, and Ethan, a wiseass who was “far busier doing his eighth-grade math teacher than eighth-grade math”—quickly find themselves stuck in Saw-style deathtraps devilishly modeled on the various ways they have disappointed dad. The sole survivor is Miriam, our protagonist, who escapes only to be approached by the mysterious Gamemaster, who offers to send her back in time to relive the fateful night, this time with foreknowledge that could keep her siblings alive. But of course, things aren’t quite so simple.
Proudly picking up the mantle laid down by such historic animations as Fantastic Planet, Heavy Metal, and Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, first-time feature film director Jason Axinn’s five-year production involved artists, animators, and colorists from 13 countries and, thanks to Carl Frank’s distinctive characters, To Your Last Death unfolds like a supercharged graphic novel. Its 2D animation, however, betrays its emotional depth.
Screenwriters Tanya Klein and Jim Cirile have done a commendable job of fleshing out the DeKalb children, each of whom is more than the archetype they appear to be. Their sensitive backstories, which touch on sexual abuse and mental health issues, could have been fumbled, but are instead handled with tact. Crucially, the movie’s more domestic horrors are never played for laughs.
Not that To Your Last Death isn’t funny. Its wicked sense of humor manifests in sight gags, absurdist dialogue, and claret-soaked scenarios that play out with all the carnivalesque glee of William Dozier’s 1960s Batman, albeit by way of The Belko Experiment’s corporate anarchy and the punk spirit of Metalocalypse.
Miriam is the heart of the picture and is voiced well by Dani Lennon. The film’s frequent close-ups are rendered so delicately, though, that much of Miriam’s emotion is free to come from her facial expressions. As a modern-day Cassandra cursed with prophetic insight into her father’s diabolical plan, she must unite her siblings, each of whom has reasons to distrust her, in order to save their lives. But there are otherworldly forces at work here. In a clever conceit not dissimilar to that in Quentin Dupieux’s surrealist metatextual slasher Rubber, the Gamemaster hosts a group of celestial entities that observe the familial chaos occurring below and place bets on who they think will survive. They act as a surrogate audience (ie us), calling the action out for being illogical or anti-climactic, which spurs the Gamemaster to reverse time and resolve their issues. The Gamemaster’s insistence that her clients get an entertainment spectacle—a stand-in, perhaps, for director Axinn—masks the screenwriters’ own handiwork, with which they weave in fake-outs that keep both us and the intergalactic gamblers guessing.
All this is carried by a committed cast of voice actors, including Ray Wise, who lends a delicious malevolence to the DeKalb patriarch, and William Shatner, whose post-credits coda neatly encapsulates the existential angst that lurks beneath the flick’s blood-spattered surface. Could the game be rigged? Miriam may have good intentions, but we often meet our fate on the path we take to avoid it.
Movie Score: 4/5