The audience at the Landmark movie theater in Chicago’s Century Centre sat in stunned silence at the end of “The Skin I Live In” and with good reason. I don’t think anyone who chose the matinee over the Bears game Sunday was quite prepared for the latest offering from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. I know I wasn’t. And he’s my favorite director! Almodovar always dabbles in the dark. He mixes the blackest of comedy into his movies’ bright color palette and outsized passions. But this is the most darkly twisted and disturbing film he’s ever done and it caught me completely off-guard. It’s an honest-to-goodness horror movie. And one with impact and stunning power.
This is Almodovar’s first horror movie and it plays like a modern version of “Frankenstein.” Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a famous plastic surgeon experimenting with synthetic skin. He lost his wife in a fiery car crash years earlier and now he’s developing a membrane layer resistant to any kind of damage, including intense heat, even mosquito bites. And he’s grafting these synthetic samples onto the person of his beautiful patient Vera (Elena Anaya). She’s living in his mansion under lock and key, as well as 24-hour surveillance, as he performs his illegal operations. Ledgard’s loyal housekeeper Marilia (Almodovar film veteran Marisa Peredes) is the only one who knows what Ledgard is secretly doing, but she’s used to such deception. Marilia is actually Ledgard’s mother. She gave him up for adoption when he was a boy. Soon after these revelations, other secrets are revealed. Bigger ones. Not only is Vera serving as Ledgard’s guinea pig, but she’s also his obsession. He watches her voyeuristically when he comes home at night the way some people turn on the TV. They have a very odd relationship. It is co-dependent at best, love/hate at worst, with Ledgard and Vera trading barbs one minute, then chilling out and getting high together the next.
At first, we identify with Ledgard. He seems a gentle and caring man, striving to create medical breakthroughs that will better mankind. And we surely understand how he’s captivated by his captive Vera. Anaya is an exquisitely beautiful actress, worthy of fawning. Her skin is as smooth and flawless as fine ivory. And she moves like an exotic cat, showing off one of cinema’s most sensual bodies. But right when you think it’s going to turn into some sort of strange but relatable love story, the movie takes the first of many brutal twists.
Marilia’s wayward criminal son finds out where she’s living and bullies his way into Ledgard’s home. It isn’t long before he discovers Vera on the monitors and becomes obsessed with her as well. Then he breaks into her room and attacks her. Ledgard returns home and shoots the man dead for defiling his special prisoner. That sets up a middle hour filled with shocks as incredible as any horror movie has ever dared offer.
What you originally thought the movie was about – an obsessed doctor trying to create a stronger skin – isn’t really about that at all. The middle’s long, extended flashback chronicles how all these characters came to live in this rich doctor’s house of horrors. Illicit affairs are revealed, there are visits to insane asylums, a suicide, a couple of murders, and a few outrageous acts of revenge you have to see to believe.
But seeing is believing. This film is about how these tormented twisted souls live in their skin. The film is terrifying without resorting to, dare I say, cosmetic horror movie clichés. Instead Almodovar keeps his beautiful imagery, sumptuous production values, and brightly lit scenes. What’s going on beneath the surface is where the true terror is. And Banderas makes for one terrifically creepy villain as Ledgard, a deranged doc who could give Hannibal Lecter a run for his medical license.
Almodovar has taken the fantastical Thierry Jonquet novel and turned it into a thriller that walks a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous, but it never goes off the rails. It’s a sustained nightmare that is also beautiful and touching. “The Skin I Live In” is never gory, but it is shocking. It shows that real horror, the kind that truly gets under your skin, that always cuts deepest and closest to the bone, is in how horribly people treat others. And here, those horrors will haunt you long after the movie has ended.