Published May 14, 2020Diablo Rojo PTY, Panama's first-ever horror feature film (PTY is the airport code for Panama), is an ode to '80s creature-feature horror — but not in the Americanized, Stephen King/John Carpenter kind of way we've all seen before. Some influences are shared — the neon, the practical creature effects, the synth-y score. But Diablo Rojo PTY takes a uniquely Latinx twist on an established genre and makes it weird, campy, gory, unique, and a total blast to watch.
The film centres around the driver of a "diablo rojo," one of Panama City's public buses. Former schoolbuses shipped over from the United States, diablo rojos are typically painted with colourful graffiti art that reflects its driver, and blast salsa, reggaeton and other bass-centric dance music. Despite the 24/7 party atmosphere, diablo rojos are the subject of controversy in Panama City: some argue that their aggressive driving and lack of maintenance makes them a safety issue, while others call for their preservation as cultural icons in a rapidly-modernizing city. Eventually, they were outlawed in 2010, but that hasn't stopped some determined diablo rojos drivers from blasting their way through the city.
When veteran diablo rojo driver Miguel (Carlos Carrasco) and his assistant Junito (Julian Urriola) share a post-shift meal one evening, Miguel encounters a woman by the restroom who suddenly makes out with him — and then, quite literally, tries to suck his face off while Miguel experiences surreal visions. Shaken but unharmed by the encounter, Miguel returns back to his dinner, but strange, supernatural occurrences dog he and Junito all night. Eventually, the pair find themselves entangled with two cops and a priest, all of whom have been the victim of a malicious swamp witch (based on Panamian folk monster "The Tulivieja"), who's cursed them to an eternity of wandering her evil jungles — unless they can find a way out.
The plot falls prey to some melodrama that, when it works well, evokes fun, campy telenovelas, or a spooky episode of The Brady Bunch. Too often, though, it devolves into lengthy exposition that pulls us away from the delightfully bananas world of witches and swamp monsters — although, for once, the witches in this film are awarded a surprisingly sympathetic backstory. It's in these scenes that the film's modest budget strains as important dramatic conversations are shot in flat closeup that makes them feel less interesting. But as a piece of visual cinema, Diablo Rojo PTY really shines.
The practical effects are squirmy, gross, inventively messed up, and admirably ambitious in scale. Without spoiling too much, one scene involves a giant, grotesquely detailed puppet that feels terrifying even though we know it doesn't look as perfect as CGI. The orchestral score is grandiose, moving from giallo-esque synths to romantic overtures during the film's cornier moments. Psychadelic visions, intense gore, chanting witches, throbbing bass, pulsating neon — Diablo Rojo PTY throws a lot at you, but nearly all of it is an aural and visual experience.
It's a little rough around the edges, and a more finely-tuned plot could have eliminated some of the genre tropes it relies on when the story falters. But Diablo Rojo PTY is a fun, gory, and colourful ode to a cultural icon and a promising indicator of what's to come from Central American horror. (The Horror Collective)