Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 22, 2020)
When we think “animated movies”, we tend toward family-friendly fare, not graphic horror. 2020’s To Your Last Death seeks to change that point of view.
Miriam DeKalb (voiced by Dani Lennon) ends up the traumatized “winner” of a violent game that killed the rest of the participants. As it happens, her father Cyrus (Ray Wise) organized this sadistic contest to punish his children for their perceived betrayal.
When Miriam ends up hospitalized, police grill her and claim she murdered her siblings. However, a mysterious visitor called the Gamemaster (Morena Baccarin) gives her a shot at a do-over.
This means that Miriam will go through her experiences again, but with foreknowledge of events. However, the Gamemaster requires entertainment, so Miriam needs to satisfy various whims if she intends to succeed and save her siblings.
Without question, Death wears its influences on its sleeve. In particular, the Saw franchise offers a clear inspiration, as Death goes with the notion of the sadistic game in which contestants need to degrade themselves in violent ways to survive.
The movie does come with a twist via the involvement of the Gamemaster, as she adds a supernatural/sci-fi element. That brings the wacky time shifts that allow Miriam to re-experience events and try different tactics.
It also means Death feels like Saw blended with an episode of Star Trek. Given that William Shatner plays the Overseer – apparently the power behind the Gamemaster – I don’t think this was unintentional.
Derivative as Death may sound, it actually provides a pretty taut little horror tale. Sure, we’ve seen elements of the film elsewhere, but the end result manages to package these components in a wild, violent ride.
I do admit that the animation can seem off-putting, as we find ourselves far from the sophisticated fare we usually see. Honestly, Death looks much more like one of these “motion comics” we occasionally find on Blu-rays, as the “animation” proves extremely limited.
While that does feel like a distraction at times, it doesn’t harpoon the project. Indeed, it gives the movie more of a graphic novel feel that kind of fits, even if I think it’d would probably work better with higher quality animation.
In any case, the story itself remains strong enough for me to ignore the limitations of the animation. Death takes a while to get going, but once it does, it turns into a tense affair.
I should amend that last sentence, as it implies Death lacks violence or drama in its early stages, and that doesn’t prove true. It opens with a bloody Miriam and soon relates how she ended up in that state.
What I mean is that Death waits a little while before it explores the Groundhog Day side of the tale. It brings a “shock opening” and then retraces its steps to place us in the crazed world where the Gamemaster manipulates events for a limited audience.
This format works, as the beginning offers a good tease of the horror to come but it doesn’t overplay itself. From there, we get decent exposition about the DeKalb family and what led Cyrus to want to torture his kids before the crazed action really ensues.
Once that violence occurs, Death really gets into it, as it develops a variety of warped, sadistic scenarios. It milks these for tension and drama.
All of this adds up to a pretty good horror tale. While it might wear its influences on its sleeve, Death packs an unsettling punch and offers solid entertainment for those with an affinity for gory stories like this.
Footnote: stick around through the conclusion of the end credits for a tag scene.