At certain points while watching this film I wondered to myself if there were many other directors who could make the grotesque look so beautiful as Pedro Almodovar (Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, Volver). Even as you are being creeped out with a dungeon cellar in the film you are at the same time remarking how beautifully it is filmed. Unlike most Almodovar films the colours are more muted in that they are primarily metallics and flesh tones with only the occasional splash of colour, which makes it all that more jarring. Unspeakable things are happening in beautiful places. Body parts, mad scientists, revenge, rape, someone being held captive. You get the picture.
It is not a film that many will appreciate upon first viewing. Like some music it might take a couple of listens or watches to connect with. Though it is a psychological horror Almodovar still is up to his usual visual tricks. He makes everything look beautiful. The action going on is severe while the director retains his controlled use of the camera.
I was interested in the film because it reunited Antonio Banderas with Almodovar, who have not worked together since their black comedy Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down in 1990. I wasn’t too sure of Mr. Banderas in this role because his acting has taken on a largesse and hamminess of late that would not work in this instance. Surprisingly he did very well with the understated/straight faced demands of the role. No over-the-top mad scientist stuff here. He still exudes sexiness and oozes charisma despite the unhinged nature of his character.
Based on a novel by Thierry Jonquet called “Tarantula”, it is the story of a psychologically damaged plastic surgeon who lusts for revenge after his wife and daughter die. Dr. Legard (Antonio Banderas – The Mask of Zorro, Desperado) suffers a tragedy when his beloved wife dies in a car accident. After her death the talented plastic surgeon devotes himself to his work, but with a sinister ulterior motive. Over the years he has developed advances in cellular therapy with the aim of making new skin for patients. Legard has strengthened human skin on the cellular level using animal genes. The mad scientist is trying to develop skin that is fireproof.
At his home lab he uses his new technique on a female patient (Elena Anaya – Van Helsing, Talk to Her). She is obviously a prisoner in his laboratory and he is working on her while she recovers from an unspecified illness/accident/tragedy. Vera is treated well in that she is dressed beautifully, has a 24/7 servant, access to all the books you could read, and even a yoga routine, but she is not allowed to leave. Living this type of life, Vera has come to the conclusion that there are only two ways out for her: to kill herself or to get the mad doctor to fall in love with her. She is a beautiful woman, so she chooses the latter.
We then flash backwards six years to see different characters including Dr. Legard’s obviously disturbed daughter and then forward to the present. We discover his housekeeper (Marisa Paredes – All About My Mother, Life is Beautiful) is not simply his housekeeper and that the man dressed as a tiger who knocks on the door is not a complete stranger. If you are still with the story after all the back and forth, zigs and zags then bravo to you because not much is explained outright for the viewer.
The beginning part of the film takes its sweet time coming together and making a point, but when it finally does at the end I felt a sense of satisfaction. You can see Almodovar’s references to filmmakers like Hitchcock or films like Frankenstein and Eyes Without a Face, but who he most references is himself and his own style which is fine by me. It is a bit of mess being all over the place and that is what I love about it. It is like a combo of sci fi/horror/soap opera all rolled into one delightful and colourful mess.
If you are an Almodovar nut like I am then the film will be appreciated. If you are coming to it as a newbie then I’m not so sure. It does contain the usual sexual atmosphere, but in this case it is dark and creepy.