It's no accident that "The Skin I'm In" found a slot in the cinematic release schedule around Halloween. The latest film from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar is a mix of high gothic and high camp that plays like an art-house version of "The House of Wax," with aging hunk Antonio Banderas playing an Iberian iteration of the mad scientist role made famous by Vincent Price.
Although the film is not a parody, it's important to be aware that there is a dose of ironic humor in the atrocities inflicted on the characters in this tale of a plastic surgeon with a penchant for playing God. There is a certain tenderness that Mr. Almodovar extends to his subjects that accentuates the discomfort of the viewer, as though the movie intends to provoke a reaction that is part sadistic glee, part cringing horror.
The setting is Toledo, the provincial stronghold that was home to the Spanish Inquisition and where El Greco painted his tortured, emaciated figures. The gated home and private clinic of Dr. Robert Ledgard (Mr. Banderas), with its long gravel driveway and its state-of-the-art surveillance system, hints at ill portents. The surveillance system is focused on a single patient, Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), who is imprisoned in a second-story bedroom and gets her meals and recreational reading delivered via a dumbwaiter. How Vera came to be in Dr. Ledgard's "care" forms the plot of the movie, which cannot be related in any detail without spoiling the film's pivotal surprise.
From the start, the character of Dr. Ledgard is cloaked in menace. He is working on a project to develop a synthetic skin that he says he is testing on mice, but perhaps there is some human experimentation going on behind the scenes. His methods are clearly unsound to go by the way he skulks around hospital parking lots to collect samples surreptitiously from thieving orderlies, and by his lack of any assistant to handle the basic chores in his home laboratory. Mr. Banderas is a treat as the smoldering, creepy doctor who manages to hide his psychopathic tendencies under the patina of a surgeon's ordinary egotism. Mr. Almodovar lingers on Dr. Ledgard's wrath — focusing on eyes that narrow into slits or throb visibly in sockets.
Miss Anaya, the Spanish actress known for her role in "Sex and Lucia," plays the imprisoned patient with a combustible mix of hope and resignation that is all the more jarring once Vera's backstory is revealed. For fans of Mr. Almodovar's work, there is some resonance here with "Talk to Her," which features a plotline about a comatose dancer who is impregnated by an obsessive male nurse. Mr. Almodovar has a penchant for breaking people in outlandish ways, and watching how they put themselves back together.
In the case of "The Skin I Live In," the effect is a bit bloodless — akin to some of the genre films by the Coen Brothers. "The Skin I Live In" uses its gothic trappings to meditate on identity in much the same way that "Miller's Crossing" muses on the nature of duty or "Blood Simple" presents variations on the theme of betrayal. These musings, however, are not the crux of the movie. "The Skin I Live In" is a very good gothic shocker; anything it may have to say about the human condition is in the service of the movie genre, not the other way around.
TITLE: "The Skin I Live In"
CREDITS: Written and Directed by Pedro Almodovar; based on the novel by Thierry Jonquet
RATING: R for violence, nudity, unusual sexual themes
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes; in Spanish with English subtitles
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS