If you have digital cable, you've probably already discovered the joys of the "on-demand" option, calling up last week's episode of Mad Men or a just-out-of-theaters Hollywood blockbuster whenever the fancy strikes. But some of the smaller (and more interesting) theatrical film distributors are using video on demand to turn your set into an elite cinema outlet. The company taking biggest and best advantage of on-demand is IFC, which has been using its cable-channel foothold to roll out its theatrically distributed titles on VOD simultaneously as it puts them into theaters, months before they hit DVD/Blu-ray. It might not seem like good business on paper, but fewer and fewer movie theaters take chances on smaller, more challenging films (e.g., Lars von Trier's 2009 IFC-distributed Antichrist), even for a week. With VOD, IFC can reach paying customers directly anywhere for months, as long as they have a cable box.
Current IFC VOD offering Valhalla Rising is a good example of the kind of film that has little or no chance in today's distribution market but doesn't necessarily merit the relative ignominy of straight-to-DVD. The trailer makes it look like a gritty Viking action-adventure epic, which would surely be good for a few box-office bucks. The film itself, however, is a slow and brooding meditation on violence and faith and humanity—as much beholden to Andrei Tarkovsky as to Ridley Scott. One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) is a mute slave, kept in a cage when he's not winning his Viking master glory and wagers in gruesome gladiator bouts. He escapes, along with a boy slave (Maarten Stevenson), and falls in with another Viking band bound for the Crusades. But a mysterious mist puts the Vikings far off course and delivers them to an unknown land where their plans for redemption through battle don't quite come off as planned. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy) proves expert and unreserved when it comes to moments of shocking violence, but more often he relies on mood and atmospheric menace (aided by stark Scottish locations) as he barely advances the faintest hint of a plot (one not dissimilar to Tony Stone's 2007 über-indie Viking flick Severed Ways). The vaporous atmosphere and untied loose ends threaten to dissipate entirely, but the unrelieved grim tone and Mikkelsen's stoic charisma help bind the whole thing together.
From the obscure to the already infamous, IFC VOD has also been offering The Human Centipede (First Sequence) for home viewing. Vacationing BFFs Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashelynn Yennie) are exactly the sort of vapid idiots the gorno genre loves to torture. But what the Teutonic Dr. Heiter (Dieter Laser)—and writer/director Tom Six—have in store is so depraved that even these ugly Americans don't seem to deserve their fate: surgically daisy-chained together with another poor kidnapped unfortunate (Akihiro Kitamura). But what's perhaps most disturbing about The Human Centipede is that it can't easily be dismissed as genre trash. Despite a few moments of borderline Udo Kier-like camp, Laser proves a formidable villain, and Six constructs a number of moments of genuine dread. (What's worse than being surgically attached to someone's ass? Anticipating being surgically attached to someone's ass.) It would be most comforting to be able to write off the film as an abomination, the ultimate in poor taste. The truth is it's surprisingly well made and memorable for more than its central conceit.
Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me hasn't earned quite the notoriety that The Human Centipede has, but its turn on the festival circuit led to widely reported walkouts and post-screening outrage. It doesn't take long to see why. Within a few reels, this period adaptation of Jim Thompson's novel presents boyish small-town Texas deputy Lou Ford (Casey Affleck) beating the beautiful prostitute (Jessica Alba) he's been seeing on the sly. And beating her, and beating her, and beating her, and beating her—and apologizing and telling her he loves her in a high drawl while he pounds her face to mush. It's ostensibly part of some elaborate revenge scheme, but as the pulpy plot unfolds and the track-covering and blackmail ensues, the sociopath behind Lou's aw-shucks good ol' boy demeanor bleeds through. Affleck turns in another in a recent string of uncanny performances, and he's backed up by an estimable cast that includes Ned Beatty, Kate Hudson, and Elias Koteas. Winterbottom's reliance on voiceover straight out of the novel maybe seems a bit too pat, but it's his emphasis on unblinking violence against women that seems most dubious, especially since other deaths are handled more discretely, even off camera. And such nose-rubbed grimness deserves a less eye-rolling ending than the director musters up here.
Please keep in mind that IFC offers all sorts of films via VOD, many of which include no blood or mayhem at all, like the acclaimed biodoc Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Nonetheless, for lightning-rod titles and smaller markets, VOD is shaping up as an excellent option for your more adventurous cinema fix.