Before we get into the film itself, it’s important to point out that Diablo Rojo PTY is the first major horror release to ever come out of Panama and as such this Salem Horror Festival film is completely anchored by the cultural weight of living in Panama, as well as extremely eager to deliver the horror goods as the country’s first.
The story is about a ‘Red Devil’ bus driver Miguel (Carlos Carrasco) and his assistant Junito (Julian Urriola) who find themselves on the wrong end of a witches curse and, after picking up a couple of police officers and a priest, find themselves lost in the middle of nowhere and fighting for their lives against all manner of supernatural monsters with origins in the country’s folklore.
Of course, the country’s myths surrounding Bruja (witches) cannibal Indigenous tribes and the film’s central story involving the story of La Tulievieja are all lovingly brought to live, but also lift directly from the fairytales and children’s stories people in Panama would hear. The titular ‘Red Devil’ bus is also distinctively iconic for the country as the recognisable, unsafe and shoddy bus service that the state has tried to get rid of several times, due to the number of deaths and accidents this mismanaged, yet beloved, public transport has caused. With this in mind, Diablo Rojo PTY is without a doubt a tribute to the country that it came from.
The bus itself is a wonderful setting for a horror theme, and the source of safety for our cast of men, thanks to its loud fun-fair-esque paintings, the fact it’s adorned with multiple coloured lights and its ability to move around means that the film gets a lot of mileage out of it. This light and colour is especially needed when the rest of the film and settings are often underlit forests, dingy and dark open spaces and a decrepit church (that does get dramatically blown up).
The church explosion is one of many examples that director Sol Moreno is certainly not holding back when it comes to packing the film full of exciting and well-realised special effects pieces. There’s a dramatic bus crash, a bus driving itself, an impressively put together bevy of practical effects ranging from the creation of the La Tulievieja monster, to the melting of the witches skin as they find themselves trapped in a river of holy water. In fact, Diablo Rojo PTY is certainly one of the more exciting and entertaining horror films I’ve seen in a while on a purely visceral level, with plenty of blood and gore and monsters to sate even the most-hardened of horror fans.
But, one scene that particularly stands out, both as an example of the film completely going for it, and also as an example that the film is distinctly not a western creation is the scene during which a group of topless witches chant in a circle before plainly and openly devouring a baby complete with gooey entrails and blood-curdling screams. It’s almost delightful in how unexpectedly morbidly twisted and shocking it is.
The overall story is also a surprisingly current and modern one as we learn that the curse of La Tulievieja is centred around a mother who abandons her baby in a river, only to change her mind but is unable to find her baby again, causing her to look and look until she becomes a monster. There is criticism rightfully levelled towards the men in the film, one of which, we find out, was the father of a woman who had killed herself in a similar situation. There are clear themes of motherhood grief, paternal responsibility and the tackling of outdated and misogynist treatment towards women here.
the film is also incredibly condensed at just over an hour, which is also to the film’s credit as it adds to the grindhouse style relentless pace of the whole thing. There’s also a delightfully incongruous old school classic horror soundtrack that actually really works with the rest of the film!
The fact that all of this is packed into Moreno’s film is as much a homage to classic horror as it is to Panama, it’s clear that Moreno has seen a lot of horror and wants to get this right and she totally succeeds in making a pulpy, brightly coloured, bloody and brutal horror film grounded in fairytales and culture. If this is only the first, I can’t wait to see what the country, and Sol Moreno, can deliver next.
You can find more of our Salem Horror Fest 2020 coverage here