One of my favorite flavors of indie horror is the mixtape, lovingly dubbed by filmmakers from an oddball greatest hits of genre inspiration. To Your Last Death is equal parts Heavy Metal, Cabin in the Woods, Saw, and The Belko Experiment. Not every riff plays perfectly into the next, but TYLD eventually finds a weirdo rhythm of its own.
Miriam DeKalb (Dani Lennon) had a rough night. Her estranged and deranged big-wig father, Cyrus DeKalb (Ray Wise), mysteriously invited the whole brood to his impenetrable high-rise for a reunion, only to sentence the whole family to death. Dad’s nursing a brain tumor, so consider his clock already punched. The heirs, though, get to die in elaborate deathtraps based on the ways they publicly embarrassed him. That alone is movie enough to last, but TYLD throws it’s a weird wrench in the gears with The Gamemaster.
Voiced by a suitably sinister Morena Baccarin and dressed like a cross between a Cenobite and a light-up Skecher, The Gamemaster acts as an interdimensional bookie for any Running Man-ready game of death she can find. Most bookies aren’t allowed to call fouls, but the space-time continuum doesn’t play by Vegas rules. Miriam gets a second chance to run her father’s high-rise gauntlet, now with the knowledge of what’s in store, and The Gamemaster gets some high-stakes bloodletting.
That hook, as fun as it is franchise-friendly, forces To Your Last Death onto a tightrope it ultimately manages to cross, even if it teeters a little more as it goes. Serling-lite narration from William Shatner sets the cosmic stage right out of the gate. Nice as it is to hear him, nothing much would be missed without it. If anything, it tips the lens the wrong way – instead of grounding us with Miriam and forcing us to look up at the unexplained and apathetic greed of the universe, we look down on her from on high with the alien high-rollers. Sometimes the perspective helps — The Gamemaster intervenes when the gamblers, ranging in style from laurel-eared emperor to Daft Punk understudy, furiously demand a replay when the “fun” contestant dies. But by the end, it’s an all-powerful excuse to make reality as questionable as it is pliable. Pile that onto another layer of paranoia about Miriam’s possibly fractured psyche and the stakes start to blur.
Fortunately the human element is genuine enough to hold the line. There’s not a weak link among the voice cast, even the actors doing their best in Rocky & Bullwinkle Russian. Dani Lennon gives Miriam a tragic weight, turning what could’ve been a genre-approved Battered Badass into someone we haven’t seen before. Ray Wise, the only voice actor whose character is obviously modeled after him, sinks his teeth into every line like it may be his last. The patriarch DeKalb is an unrepentant monster (see: custom deathtraps for his kids) and Wise wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s some heavy baggage in TYLD. Discussions of rape, perversion. Flashbacks of physical abuse done in a cleverly arresting Jack Kirby style. But it never fumbles into bad taste, though mileage may vary on the violence.
To Your Last Death’s calling card is its animation. According to the filmmakers, it’s the first-ever American horror movie animated in 2-D. That explains the cognitive dissonance in every spree of sloppy-joe gore. You expect a cut, pulled punch, or commercial break — its closest visual cousin is the bendy-joint paper dolls of TV’s Archer, though there’s more detail and depth to TYLD. It’s an ambitious shot to call, but the result is an impressively alive graphic novel, with occasional flourishes of monochromatic style, that doesn’t quite look like anything else.
To Your Last Death is a big swing in every sense, even if it commits the forgivable sin of doing too much in the process. That still makes it more hit than miss, and a one-of-a-kind mixtape worth listening to.