Pedro Olea’s El Bosque del Lobo (1970) follows the itinerant peddler Benito Freire (José Luis López Vázquez) as he criss-crosses his way through the Spanish countryside at the dawn of the twentieth century. Benito believes himself to be a kind of werewolf and will murder anyone who joins him on his trek from village to village, town to city. El Bosque del Lobo looks at how such a serial killer was possible and operated at that time as well as how myths, legends, and folklore became the methods for explaining or accounting for such violence and behavior.
El Bosque del Lobo is a film that is wholly invested in the relationship between clinical facts and the myths that existed around them in a more technologically primitive time as a kind of communal coping mechanism. The film opens and closes with a song that describes a specific local werewolf tale that invites the listener and by extension the viewer to believe in the fantastic. But the material between Olea’s bookends is executed with a removed matter-of-factness that is more in the vein of the true crime picture than the fantasy/horror film.
Olea shows how Benito operated as a serial killer with a cold, unflinching gaze. While the murders are disturbing, their most intensely felt and communicated terror resides with the trust that Benito cultivated in the communities he visited that he ultimately exploited when he committed his crimes. The folktales of werewolves aren’t so much a coping mechanism for the gory details of these murders, but for the “wolf in sheep’s skin” of such a killer. Again and again townsfolk choose not to believe Benito is a murderer, making themselves culpable of his crimes.
The moral of El Bosque del Lobo will resonate differently today than it did in the waning years of Francoist Spain. At the time Olea’s film of serial murders and folktales of werewolves read as a thinly veiled commentary on the violence and secretive nature of Franco’s bloody regime. The legend of the werewolf becomes a versatile political allegory that in addition to serving as an allegory for Francoist Spain, could also be read as a commentary on Nazism and the abuses of the Catholic Church. It is the potential for savagery in mankind that the werewolf myth attempts to mask and explain away.
To this end it is important to note that while Olea goes to great lengths to show the spectator the behavioral methodology of Benito the killer, El Bosque del Lobo does not actually show any of the murders in graphic detail. Olea does not wish to exploit the spectacle of death and violence; shying away from the pleasures of schadenfreude as much as possible. How Benito kills is not nearly as relevant to Olea as why he gets away with it for so long. Violence is inherently sensational and no amount of on screen violence can match the macabre imaginings of the audience’s mind.