Anything for Halloween? I’d vouch for The Skin I Live In, a scary, sexy and terrifically twisted horror film from the artist known as Pedro Almodóvar, Spain’s stylish maestro of kink and flamboyant emotion. Skin reunites Almodóvar with Antonio Banderas for the first time since 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Director and star still bring out the wicked, badass best in each other.
Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a widower plastic surgeon who uses his isolated mansion to hide a suicidal patient whom we see only in a head bandage and a body stocking. She’s called Vera (Elena Anaya), and when Robert is not experimenting on her with synthetic skin grafts, he’s observing her behind glass with a voyeuristic perversity that evokes Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo. Banderas is magnetic with a vengeance, the fire in his eyes a constant threat to the surgical precision of the scientist he plays. He’s a new-century Dr. Frankenstein and twice as bone-chilling for that. Vera has no memories; she’s a blank canvas on which Robert (and by extension the audience) does all the painting.
You can tell Vera badly wants out; she even tries to seduce Robert, who looks guilty but tempted. Robert’s housekeeper, Marilia (the excellent Marisa Paredes), is a fierce guard. That is, until her hood son Zeca (Roberto Álamo) breaks in (wearing a tiger mask) and decides to take carnal advantage of this beautiful bird in a gilded cage.
There’s a teasing allure in the way Almodóvar uncovers the secrets Robert hides. Adapting Thierry Jonquet’s novel Mygale, director and co-writer Almodóvar never lets the creeping terror obliterate the bruised humanity of the characters. Few directors have Almodóvar’s skill at swerving from outrageous camp to unspeakable terror without tipping into absurdity. Even when the film’s frigid elegance, perfectly captured by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, becomes off-puttingly clinical, Almodóvar’s passion burns through. The skin he lives in is alive to challenge no matter what warped form it takes.