If you were to ever visit Panama, it is highly likely that you would see one of the cities iconic ‘Diablo Rojo’ or ‘Red Devil’ buses. These privately owned, converted American school buses are incredibly bright, adorned with sprayed painted images of cultural icons and characters, loaded with lights and blaring salsa music. Unsurprisingly, these visual treats are also the reason for this method of transport’s unsavoury nickname. Overcrowded and unsafe, many of the Diablo Rojo drivers have been caught driving unsafely, and many accidents have occurred. Due to their privately owned nature, drivers would partake in ‘suicide races’ to see who could get the fare at the next stop the fastest. All this taken into consideration, the city decided to unearth a plan to de-commission the buses, buying them up and replacing them with air-conditioned and bland Metrobuses. Ultimately this did not work out, as the Metrobuses could not support the population of Panama and some Diablo Rojos returned to the streets, they were after all a cultural mainstay and most peoples preferred commute, despite their risk.
It seems only apt that now, as Panama’s first ever horror film has been acquired for distribution in the USA, that its title and plot centre around these iconic buses. Diablo Rojo PTY (the ‘pty’ referencing the country’s airport) drives a long road to hell paved with witchcraft in Sol Moreno’s effects-heavy directorial debut.
Out on the road, bus driver Miguel (Carlos Carrasco) is a menace, speeding and racing other Diablo Rojos to the next stop. His music is loud the colours on his bus louder. One even after taking a break to eat, Miguel is cornered by a woman with blackened eyes. She sucks on his mouth and he sees a psychedelic, horrific vision. After his break, these strange occurrences keep happening, there is a woman sacrificing a chicken in the middle of the road and at one-point Miguel becomes completely unaware of how fast −or far− he is driving. After being pulled over by two police officers things get stranger still. Miguel believes he sees a woman −presumed to be his ex who vanished years ago− but she quickly transforms into a demonic witch. With the witches now hot on their tail dragging them further into unknown territory, Miguel and the men must find a way to get home and free themselves from the witches’ grasp.
Diablo Rojo PTY is a practical effects joyride, the witch is a grand creature of horrific proportions, huge in size and even huger in ambition. Moreno’s film feels really engrained within the Panamanian culture; the threat of satanic witchcraft is an underlying concern in this largely Roman Catholic society. And ironically in this case, the Diablo Rojo turns out to be the safest place for the main characters.
There are huge monsters, screaming witchy rituals, baby eating, severed hands and just about everything you could possibly pluck from the horror arsenal. The film is backed by a stunning score from Ricardo Risco that evokes the feeling of 1950s/60s horror with a full orchestra. It builds a lot of mystery for an otherwise all-out type of film; the music feels like its constantly peering around a corner and seeing something it should not have. Moreno has thrown everything at the wall to get this film made and tried to come out the gate swinging with a film that will stand out from a dominated market. There is a hint of that culture-specific folklore element that someone like Issa López− another Spanish speaking filmmaker− has been successful at, that makes films like Moreno’s quite essential in broadening horror’s horizons. Unfortunately, there is moments where the budget constraints do make the film lean into B-movie stylings, with some plot points feeling quite contrived purely to have maximum dramatic impact.
The film does feel important though. As Panama’s first ever horror film and from a female director at that, it is essential to support works like Diablo Rojo PTY so that filmmakers can blossom in these countries and continue to get their films made. Sol Moreno has buckets of potential to develop as a genre filmmaker, her passion for practical effects and folklore will take her far in a genre craving just that. Diablo Rojo PTY is a freaky ride to hell with its toes dipped firmly in the fascinating folklore and cultural icons of Panama.
Diablo Rojo PTY will be available on Amazon US from May 14th
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She is a costume designer and trainee teacher living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Green Room and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Letterboxd here.