Diablo Rojo PTY is the first ever horror movie from Panama so regardless of what anybody makes of the thing it’s safe to say it’s a big deal. The issue with reviewing movies like this, which have their roots buried so deeply in native folklore, is that for those unfamiliar with such myths, many of the most important elements don’t land unless they’re very clearly communicated. There’s an argument to be made about a movie breaking through regardless of how specific it is, for example The Hallow, which tackles Irish folklore with regards to changelings and wood nymphs, but still it’s worth remembering that a film invoking its native country’s myths and legends is reasonably going to make more of an impact on those familiar with such things.
Diablo Rojo PTY takes place almost entirely onboard a so-called “Diablo Rojo” bus, which is done up to the nines like the vehicle is en route to Pride (and has taken several thousand uppers) all on its own. Young, bright-eyed actor Julian Urriola is Junito, second-in-command to driver Miguel (Speed star Carlos Carrasco), who dreams of driving his own bus someday. During a routine stop for food, Miguel comes afoul of a witch who looks a bit like Poison Ivy gone rogue (and by that I mean, her beauty routine ain’t what it used to be) and whatever spell she’s cast (it involves plucking chickens in a downpour) puts the bus on the road to mayhem. Along the way, two cops (a literal good cop, bad cop duo) and a priest join their party, making the group quite the ragtag bunch (of men; women are represented only as villains and, in one instance, utilized for a plot device involving a past love).
Once the group is sufficiently lost in the Chiriqui jungle, all manner of creatures start to emerge from the shadows, conducting acts of ritual slaughter, cannibalism, and plenty more besides. The film is tackling the Costa Rican and Panamanian folklore tale of La Tulivieja and, regardless of whether you have any familiarity with this particular story, at the very least Diablo Rojo PTY provides the authentic Latin flavour that was sorely lacking from last year’s The Curse of La Llorona (which, funnily enough, dealt with a similar theme of bad mothers and lost children). The problem is that there’s so little scene setting for those who aren’t in the know that it all becomes a bit of a muddle and, even worse as the bus drives on through the night, increasingly repetitive. There’s a ton of exposition just plunked down in the middle of scenes without any sense of intrigue being established.
Although the film is billed as a horror-comedy, there’s little of either here aside from a genuinely great final shot, which hints at what might have been. It’s a shame because both Urriola and Carrasco are very good, their light-hearted jostle for control of the bus powering much of the narrative. Diablo Rojo PTY feels a bit like a stage play in the way its story and characters are laid out and, although it was evidently shot on location, the film feels contained in a manner that restricts its greater potential. Ricardo Risco’s score works overtime to set the tone to the point that it becomes headache-inducingly irritating. As annoyingly obvious a metaphor as this might be, the movie kind of feels like the journey at its heart; aimless, doomed, and ultimately a bit dull. Its story roams around in the dark, looking for a point it never quite finds, with various horrible creatures popping in and out of frame every now and again like a rickety old ghost train dropping plastic spiders on our heads.
However, on a more positive note, the monsters themselves are quite cool and nicely ramshackle as only practical creations can be. Hamed Ortega’s VFX are strong across the board, with some terrific gore and body horror employed once things start to go downhill (though not literally, since the bus remains on a curiously straight road throughout). Diablo Rojo PTY feels dark, dank, and messy, and knowing its terrors are rooted in real-life legends offers them a certain three-dimensionality but it never quite achieves the scare potential the filmmakers (the movie was written and produced by J. Oskura Nájera and directed by Sol Moreno) were clearly aiming for. Maybe it was simply lost in translation, or perhaps a deeper understanding of the source material is required, but this version of the tale of La Tulivieja doesn’t tell us much beyond the fact there’s a scorned woman involved (a cursory Google suggests there actually is a decent basis for a horror movie here).
Diablo Rojo PTY is the first film of its kind from Panama and for that alone it should be heralded as a massive achievement, particularly considering it remains strictly loyal to its country of origin. It’s just a shame the movie doesn’t have more of an impact outside of that very specific demographic.
WICKED RATING: 6/10
Director(s): Sol Moreno
Writer(s): J. Oskura Nájera
Stars: Carlos Carrasco, Julien Urriola, Leo Wiznitzer, Alejandra Araúz
Release date: May 14, 2020 (Amazon)
Studio/Production Company: Panama Horror Film Company
Run Time: 80 minutes