Plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Banderas) has perfected a form of artificial skin. Vera (Anaya), an experimental test subject, is a prisoner in his isolated mansion. When a violent criminal forces his way in, Ledgard and Vera are forced to remember the tragedies and crimes which brought them together.
For a director whose work is so distinctive, Pedro Almodóvar likes to make movies which grow out of other films. Though based on a French novel, this brew of obsession, plastic surgery and Gothic back story is rooted in a clutch of key films from the late 1950s: Hitchcock’s Vertigo (in which James Stewart tries to reshape Kim Novak into the image of herself), Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (in which a detached psychological experiment creates a serial killer) and, most of all, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face (in which a mad scientist steals the faces of kidnapped girls to graft onto his scarred daughter). It’s the closest Almodóvar has come to horror since Matador, and even — in a crucial middle stretch — evokes the current fad for chained-up-in-the-cellar torture-and-revenge movies.
The subject is so extreme, and the plot so grotesque, that the film has to be completely self-assured to pull it off. A key to its success is Almodóvar’s direction of his leads: Antonio Banderas, returning to the fold after some years as an international star, is quietly, resolutely, simmeringly insane as the Frankensteinian Dr. Ledgard; while Elena Anaya, among the most beautiful creatures in Europe even before the make-over she gets here, is a revelation as the perfect monster in a leotard or a plastic mask. After a long, mystifying first act — which includes startling images like a tiger-costumed thug (Roberto Álamo) seemingly taking Anaya’s entire lower jaw in his mouth — the back story is trickled out in flashbacks. Crucial to the knot of surgical and family horrors are a doting, if sinister housekeeper (Marisa Peredes) and a feckless young dress-shop worker (Jan Cornet), characters who develop in several unexpected directions as the trap closes.
At once tender and savage, reticent in its gore but ferocious in its psychology, this takes Almodóvar into the macabre operating theatre usually thought the province of David Cronenberg but perhaps also home to the most disreputable auteur ever to come out of Spain, Jesus Franco (specifically his Dr. Orloff series). In recent work, Almodóvar has calmed down, confident enough of his mastery to aspire to simplicity: he used to direct with a rubber comedy sledge hammer, but now he uses a sterling silver scalpel.
Not for everyone there will be heated debate about at least one plot turn but high-level filmmaking. The years classiest horror movie.