CANNES, France (Reuters) - Horror, suspense and plastic surgery gone wild made for an explosive mix Thursday with "The Skin I Live In," a step into darker ground for Spanish director Pedro Almodovar as he aims for the top prize at Cannes.
The film starring Antonio Banderas and Marisa Paredes is a radical departure for the director, whose typically funny and colorful films have won him two prizes at Cannes, but never the Palme d'Or for best picture.
Adapted from a French novel, "The Skin I Live In" is the twisted story of a plastic surgeon -- Banderas -- who develops a revolutionary new flame- and malaria-proof skin after his wife is horribly burned in a car crash.
Tragedy strikes twice when his daughter commits suicide, leading him into a tale of revenge, imprisonment and abuse in an unusually tense turn by the Oscar-winning director of "Talk To Her," "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and "Volver."
Dark and thought-provoking, "The Skin I Live In" draws on horror and science fiction genres to explore what happens when a scientist loses touch with humanity, offering a modern take on the 1931 classic "Frankenstein."
The director said he delved into medical literature while researching his movie, which poses questions about the potential dangers of new technologies like genetic engineering and growing human organs in a laboratory.
"It's not science fiction because these experiments already exist -- there is a laboratory in Granada where they make artificial skin," Almodovar said at a press conference after a packed press screening.
"I wanted suspense but without gore, without blood -- there are a lot of incisions in the movie but I did not want it to be a gory film," he added.
Early appraisals of "The Skin I Live In," one of the most highly anticipated movies of the festival behind Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," were upbeat, belying a somewhat tepid round of applause at the screening.
"The Skin I Live In" raises the ante in terms of the competition at Cannes, where heavy hitters Terrence Malick, Lars Von Trier and Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne screened movies to largely favorable responses from critics.
But Almodovar's official red carpet premiere later on Thursday is likely to be overshadowed by the shock expulsion of Von Trier for jokes he made this week about being a Nazi.
The film marks the renewal of a long-dormant collaboration between Almodovar and Banderas, whose last outing together was the 1990 "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down" that launched the actor's international career.
"I'm home, it feels like being home," he said.
The Spanish heartthrob plays a psychopathic surgeon wracked by inner torment and completely insensitive to the suffering of his patient -- a performance that prompted Screen magazine's Mike Goodridge to write that Banderas had "never been better."
"He's completely cold and this is the type of character I had to embody," Banderas said. "The idea was not to horrify them (spectators) by showing them horrible pictures -- they gradually sense this malaise."
Almodovar said he pushed his actors hard during the shooting and encouraged them to embody their twisted characters entirely.
"There is a sense of sacrifice on the actors' part," Banderas said. "This is where he (Almodovar) forces us to go, to portray our characters -- the idea is to assimilate the feelings and reflect the general tone without gesticulating."
Almodovar, a regular at the Cannes film festival, won a prize for best director at Cannes in 1999 with "All About My Mother" and an award for best screenplay in 2006 "Volver."
Editing by Paul Casciato