So a bus driver, a priest, and a cop walk into a church.
“Charming” and “adorable” might not be the words you’d want to immediately associate with a Panamanian horror film about witches and cannibals, but Diablo Rojo PTY forces your hand. This adorable yet terrifying tale of the devils in Panama (based on the folklore of La Tuliviejai) is full of heart, charm, and the passion you associate with its geographical area.
Chased out of a bar by a suspected witch, a bus driver and his young pal hit the streets in their party bus only to be hassled by some cops. Stopping to avoid colliding with a woman in the street, the group is attacked by a winged demon who, after mangling an officer’s hand, throws them off course and into Chiriqui, a Panamanian province rumoured to be home to witches, cannibals, and other potential devil-aligned baddies. What starts as a simple story of some men attacked by witches leaps into a deeper story about love, loss, grief, and madness.
Diablo Rojo PTY is surprising because it suggests you might be watching pure horror via cannibalistic witches with gruesome effects, but it feels more like the sweetest episode of Ash vs Evil Dead. Further from the Eli Roth murder parties than it accidentally suggests, it feels like an episode of Hammer House of Horror that takes a trip down south due to its hazy flashbacks and cheeky score. Maybe it leans a bit too much on the tested structures of old, but it’s a refreshing take (read: dudes hunted by dames) on the proven formula.
Horror is most effective when we care about the characters, and the quick charm actors Carlos Carrasco (Speed, back on a bus!) and Julian Urriola bring to their characters will make you instantly concerned for their wellbeing and invested in Miguel’s (Carrasco) backstory.
I can’t say I am an expert in South American horror lore, but Diablo Rojo PTY makes me want to become one, or at least know one. In breaking down that which they fear, the officer is spooked by the prospect that they might have landed in Chiriqui. They’re fearful of witches rumoured to be part of the Guaymi tribe, and the Cadejo, a spirit visible to travelers at night. Though I can’t speak for representation of the lore here, it’s certainly exciting as a horror fan to hear mention of characters outside my own knowledge base and to see new creatures and myths from different groups.
Though not the star of the show, the effects make a good case for being one. The use of practical effects is incredible here. Flesh is ripped, seared, chewed, and chucked in ways that’ll make you squirm, wince, and feel phantom pain in your fingers. This throwback to tactile blood and skin works with the ambiguous score to create what feels like a new horror movie if things stopped evolving in the early ’80s.
Diablo Rojo PTY succeeds by not only delivering well-staged horror tableaus, but because it balances fear and grief with levity and charm. It’s as simple as some men being attacked by malevolent beings, but it’s a story of guilt and grief acted through gags. It’s a delight that I’d call fun for the whole family if it weren’t for all that baby-eating stuff.
Diablo Rojo PTY is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Movie Score: 3.5/5