Almodovar & Banderas deliver a horror movie with laugh lines

THE SUPER-KINKY horror of "The Skin I Live In" is like Pedro Almodovar's toxic reaction to the prospect of becoming respectable.

The Spaniard went almost mainstream during the past decade, winning Oscars (for "Talk to Her") and Cannes awards (for "Volver") and becoming a granny-safe trip to the art house.

You'll want to leave granny at home for "Skin,"< the story of a stoically demented plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) who's invented a new kind of synthetic skin, an innovation that has something to do with the foxy brunette (Elena Anaya) confined to a room in his mansion.

Is she a prisoner?

A patient?

A little of both?

Best to let Almodovar explain it, best not to read too many reviews before you see it. One of the pleasures of "Skin" is that it contains things you will not see coming.

The movie is alive with references to classic movies, though. Banderas' character is heir to Victor Frankenstein, to the Jimmy Stewart characters in "Vertigo" and even "Rear Window," to Jame Gumb in "The Silence of the Lambs."

All fixtures in the realm of classic horror and suspense, the heights to which Almodovar aspires. And there are moments in "Skin" when he gets there.

There are also moments when Almodovar's natural impishness intrudes. No horror movie should make you snicker this much. When twists and secrets of "Skin" are revealed, they come like a punchline, and that's how you react. Almodovar doesn't have the discipline or desire to give his movie the tragic-romantic stature of classic horror.

Still, it's nice to see him back with Banderas, whose Hollywood career he launched, resulting in the prosperous-looking actor we've seen in recent years.

Here, Banderas is leaner, grayer, older - he looks a little like a Mediterranean George Clooney, and he elevates the movie by underplaying the mad surgeon, whose matter-of-fact affect makes his character's actions seem all the more disturbing.

Banderas has some hair-raising scenes with Anaya as his in-house patient/muse.

She's a good actress, whose sexuality Almodovar puts to memorably inventive use.

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

Directed by Éditions Gallimar, Thierry Jonquet, Agustín Almodóva, Pedro Almodóvar. With Roberto Álam, Marisa Paredes, Blanca Suárez, Jan Corne, Fernando Cay, Antonio Banderas, Bárbara Lenni, Elena Anaya, Susi Sánche, Eduard Fernández. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.

Running time: 2 hours, 0 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for disturbing violent content including sexual assault, strong sexuality, graphic nudity, drug use and language).