Apparently one of the least seen of vintage era Spanish genre films, despite the name and period setting suggesting Naschy style lupine action, El Bosque del Lobo is a far cry away. Don't let the lack of bonkers plotting and modish nudity and bloodshed (there is indeed no nudity nor bloodshed) put you off though, it's a mature and unsettling horror drama treat well worth investigating for any fans of more restrained and intelligent fare. The story often takes a backseat to the period, a potent evocation of what could easily be any past era, close knit God fearing and superstitious villagers separated by hard journeys, prominent churchmen and landowners, imperfect but essentially good people doing the best they can. The background is filled without modern attitude, all the better for the film's purpose to emerge through the story.
The tale is of Benito Freire, travelling pedlar and sufferer from epilepsy or some related ailment. Something of an innocent, somewhat simple and preternaturally sensitive, after a mad moment sees him commit a serious crime he spirals dowhill into horror. Though he lies and does some awful things he remains a curiously sympathetic creature, an outsider and villain obluquely influencedby what he sees and hears. A bad person but hard to really call evil, in his actions he reveals how the structures and superstitions of ill advanced people make ample ground for misfortune. In fact the course of events could quite easily be transferred to a modern setting and conditions, the misunderstandings, fears and failures of communication are universal, indeed even demonstrable with modern cases in real life. This is the films power, another world that maps with sad ease to our own. Of course, the production and plotting wouldn't add up to much if the acting wasn't on the money and fortunately it generally is. Juan Luis Lopez Valdez is near perfect as Benito Freire, sullen, frowning but helpful, palpably used stoic, and in his violent moments contorted, brows knitting in miserable frenzy. The rest of the cast fill more conventional roles and do so solidly, sweet young ladies and crueller old, vigorous young men and aged, dignified men of cloth or land. Everyone does their part nicely, although the only face which stood out for me was Euro cinema veteran John Steiner in a small but important role, his wandering man of surpassing insight a sort of happier reflection of poor Benito.
Things are not perfect here, the main drawback being a final act that feels curiously slack, it should be exciting but somehow feels redundant and unfocused. The lack of insight and redemption is a good thing, but really there could have been more of a kick here, more tightening of the screws. Instead things are predictable and get a little wearing as the end draws in. And more general shading and context would have been useful, more perhaps of Benito's childhood and interim years, something more, just a few sketches of something more behind the general implications of the piece would have made it in total more powerful. But still, this is a fine diversion. One of those films that really does take you away from your everyday surroundings, yet still relevant, quite an achievement. Well recommended then, although probobly better for art-horror fans than seekers of pulse pounding excitement.