One of the joys of the Arrow Video FrightFest programme is always the way that it reflects the incredible breadth and scope of the horror genre. This year alone, the likes of the Soska Sisters’ Rabid remake are on the same line-up as time travel actioner Stairs and the uber-meta crime comedy Madness in the Method. It’s in that spirit of variety that animated bloodbath To Your Last Death arrives, backed by a tonne of style and flair.
The plot is an interesting one, with slimy corporate patriarch Cyrus DeKalb (Ray Wise) summoning his children to announce that he has terminal cancer. Any suggestion this might be a congenial reunion are banished when Cyrus yells abuse at his kids and forces each of them into a tailor-made, Saw-like death traps. Only political activist Miriam (Dani Lennon) survives but, after an odd encounter with the mysterious Gamemaster (Deadpool‘s Morena Baccarin), she is forced to relive the night all over again as a form of sport for a cabal of intergalactic gamblers.
If that story sounds unhinged, then it’s nothing on the film that follows – 90 minutes of blood-soaked carnage, rendered via a bold, vivid animation style that transplants comic book visuals to the big screen, with a side order of video game. The death traps, in particular, benefit from the kaleidoscopic potential of the hyper-stylised palette, conjuring sequences far more terrifying and potent than the soulless CGI-heavy creations of the later Saw sequels. Some of the film’s shock tactic violence doesn’t quite work, but a lot of it does.
Befitting its time-bending narrative, To Your Last Death opens with the gore-drenched protagonist emerging from her worst nightmare, only to circle back through the machinations of Baccarin’s celestial trickster. The film’s time travel is an odd device and often muddies the waters in a way that affects the overall stakes – major developments are often walked back by the Gamemaster for their lack of excitement – and the overall idea of cosmic puppet masters is never explored to its full potential.
Instead, the film spends a lot of time on the idea of the family creating its own “mutually assured destruction” through their own squabbles and disputes. It’s an idea that feels a little facile, particularly given the obvious reasons for this specific family’s ruptures. The movie chooses to find its central theme in the human side rather than the cosmic, when the potential for allegory is richer than those involved seem to realise.
The voice performances, however, are admirably solid, with Dani Lennon bringing plenty of heart to her ‘final girl’ archetype. Wise is properly hissable as Cyrus and horror icon Bill Moseley makes a real impact as Cyrus’ sadistic henchman Pavel – a Terminator in human form. When the movie unleashes its most outrageous gore and amps up the narrative chaos in the third act, Axinn’s aptitude for madness rises to the surface in raucously enjoyable fashion.
After its odyssey of violence and gallons of bloodshed has been allowed to marinate, To Your Last Death ensures it states its worldview very clearly with an incredibly downbeat post-credits scene courtesy of William Shatner’s underused narrator. This is a bold and unusual film that, even if it isn’t quite as accomplished as it ought to be, marks the arrival of an innovative and exciting director in Jason Axinn.
Dir: Jason Axinn
Scr: Jim Cirile, Tanya C. Klein
Cast: Dani Lennon, Ray Wise, Morena Baccarin, William Shatner, Florence Hartigan, Benjamin Siemon, Damien C. Haas, Bill Moseley
Prd: Jason Axinn, Cindi Rice, Paige Barnett
Music: Rene G. Boscio
Run time: 91 mins
To Your Last Death is screening at Arrow Video FrightFest.