★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
To Your Last Death is a unicorn of a movie. A gory R-rated 2-D Western animated film. It’s a rowdy romp that uses familiar themes but takes full advantage of the unusual animated medium. It feels like an animated comic book on steroids.
Directed by Jason Axinn
Think for a minute. Name a western horror animated feature. You probably can’t can you? Probably the closest thing would be the B-52 bomber sequence from Heavy Metal, but that was just a segment. There are plenty of art house short films and anime feature films from Japan that would qualify, but To Your Last Death is a unique film, and it claims that it is the first of its kind. Hard to dispute. Google and Wiki searches would seem to back up their pronouncement.
The film resembles the television show, Archer, with crisply “inked” characters rendered in a sometimes fore-shortened environment. The character illustrations look great, and the animators make great use of focal depth and layering to create great layering in the presentation. It does strongly resemble an animated comic book in texture and feel. The quality of the production exceeds what you would see on television, but it does not reach the masterful painterly quality of a Miyazaki film nor does it have the depth of detail that a Pixar or Laika film gives you. But that’s perfectly fine, given that it probably cost a mere fraction of one of those films. I applaud the achievement and would like to see more films like this.
The story is easily recognizable. Our central protagonist, Miriam DeKalb( (Dani Lennon), is a social justice warrior, who along with her siblings managed to bring down her military industrialist father’s megalomaniacal schemes (he ran as Vice President) and now, years later, he has summoned them for a family gathering. Cyrus DeKalb (Ray Wise) has revenge on his mind, and he has a trap set up for all of his traitorous children. In the opening sequence, it is clear that Cyrus has succeeded at his cruel plans, with only Miriam surviving the debacle, bloodied, and carrying an axe.
Miriam is given a second chance on her hospital bed by a mysterious (and ridiculously curvy) “woman” in a very revealing outfit who offers her a “reset” button. How would you like to get a second chance at that meeting with your dad, knowing now what he has planned? So now, we’re into the Groundhog Day/Happy Death Day/Edge of Tomorrow cheat your fate type of movie. The sexy Gamemaster (Morena Baccarin) is actually running a gambling ring for a group of cosmic high-rollers, and they demand entertainment. And, if they don’t like the way things are going, they can demand a reset of their own.
Miriam goes back into the breach, this time determined to save her siblings all of whom are completely scurrilous, and none of them get along. But, they are family, and they do not deserve the horrible torture chambers that await them. Now armed with the knowledge of what her father has planned, Miriam tries to convince her brothers and sister that dear old dad is out to kill them. Of course, they think she’s crazy, but she knows she’s got a fighting chance. When her father’s thugs show up, there will be blood, one way or another.
Familiar? Yes. But it’s also a lot of fun. In addition to the Cheating Fate trope, there is plenty of the tricks and traps trope (Saw), office horror, revenge themes, and a bit of Jason and the Argonauts (Greek Gods meddling with humans) mixed in. Given all the recognizable themes, it still feels fresh. The story still chugs along at a nice clip, and the story is completely engaging. The difference here, of course, is the animation.
Astute nerds will recognize the art. Carl Frank is an illustrator who has achieved his stature by illustrating Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering. They farmed out his key-framed cells to illustrators all over the globe, and it is an achievement that there is such solid consistency given how they had to spread the work load out. One of my favorite touches were that they re-modeled Cyrus to resemble Ray Wise, per his request, and the produced an uncanny resemblance. This was an efficient use of animation, and I tip a blood-soaked cap to their crew.
The voice-over work was a bit of a mixed bag. I thought Dani Lennon was good throughout. She was the key to enjoying the movie and she was successful in getting us to buy into her dilemma. My favorite character in the movie was the scarred thug Jurek, voiced by Seve Gieger, whose menacing Eastern European accent dovetailed perfectly into the brutish and bulky character design.
Unfortunately, some of the more familiar actors left me wanting a bit more. I miss the sass and spunk that Baccarin usually brings to her performances. In this role she plays a heavy, and does it with somber weight… but that’s not what I normally associate her with. I didn’t really pick up on Bill Moseley, and I had to check on the credits to figure out who he played. Such is the way of animated films sometimes, trying to place the actor to the character. William Shatner lends his voice for some monologuing, but this could have been anybody. His name on the poster will attract attention, but he’s a narrator. On the plus side, Ray Wise sounded like he was really enjoying himself.
Keep in mind that this ambitious project was a first-time effort by the creators, Tanya Klein and James Cirile, as well as the director Axinn. They should be tremendously proud of what they pulled off here. Usually, “horror ” animation has come to mean Paranorman, The Nightmare Before Christmas, or Hotel Transylvania. Kid’s stuff. The beauty of animation is that there are few boundaries to contain your story, and it’s about time we got a bloody horror animated feature. I hope they start a trend with this. I am assuming at some point this will be picked up by Shudder, Amazon, or Hulu, and it deserves a large audience. They have been very open that they think that this could be a franchise, and there are multitudes of stories they could spin-off of this, without it getting stale.
To Your Last Death is early in its festival run, as it just played at the FilmQuest Festival in Provo. This is definitely an R-Rated movie, for lots of gore, language, and a little bit of nudity. Heavy Metal would be a reasonable comp. Hell. it may be the only comp!
For more on To Your Last Death, you can check out their nifty homepage HERE.