Morbido 2019 Review: DIABLO ROJO PTY, Local Folklore on Display in Panama's First Horror Film
Miguel is the owner and operator of one of the last Diablos Rojos (Red Beasts), garishly painted and lit old-fashioned school buses that were once the popular choice of transit for the people of Panama. Late at night, after a long shift, Miguel has a run-in with a Bruja (witch) which sets of a chain of events that abandons him, his assistant and two police officers, deep into the countryside. Hours away from Panama with only the old, tough steel of his Diablo Rojo to protect them, this quartet will face off against a who’s who of local folklore. Ultimately their fate will be decided by the dreaded Tulivieja!
Diablo Rojo PTY (PTY is the airport code for Panama if you must know. Hereonin we will just callt it Diablo Rojo) is the first horror film from Panama and the first time on screen that anyone will have seen the monster of The Tulivieja. Along with her there will be other classic monsters of the folk culture of the interior, handed down for generations by oral tradition. Folklore says that the Tulivieja was a woman who abandoned her child in the river and punished to suffer in the horrible form, a creature with bare breasts, inverted legs, bat wings, skin full of oozing pores, and a colony of ants following her.
The Tulivieja has never been physically represented before, true to the description from the stories. It took the wonderful puppet work by three puppeteers in a creature created by Ales Rojas at Monster Corner Shop, with help from Pandemia Estudio, to make it happen in Diablo Rojo. It is truly horrendous to see on screen and the creators must be applauded for this old school approach to representing the creature for the first time on screen.
As great as a practical effects Tulivieja is, the first real star of the film is the bus, an authentic Diablo Rojo, know at Duro de Matar (Hard to Kill). Indeed this large metallic beast is a wonder to behold. There is no corner left untouched by bright colored paint or strips of lights. It is a shame that the Diablos Rojos are a dying institution in Panama, perhaps gone by the time we will ever visit the country but the filmmakers pay their respects to these brightly lit kings of the road with plenty of long shots of it cruising unlit country roads.
Diablo Rojo also stars veteran international and veteran Hollywood actor Carlos Carrasco as the bus owner and operator, Miguel. Lo and behold this is not Carrasco’s first time on a bus ride from hell. Get this. Carrasco was on bus 2525 in the 1994 action classic, Speed. This time however he is on a bus ride *to* hell.
There is also this wonderful theme, created by the producer J. Najera during the writing of the script of the film, that is an homage to the work of Riz Ortolani and Cannibal Holocaust. Another first for the Panamanian film community was the score created by Ricardo Risco and the Panama Symphony Orchestra. We presume that this means it is a first for the symphony to create a score for a horror film. The only thing about the film score is that it is playing throughout most of the film. Future consideration for upcoming horror films from this group is that music does not have to be playing all the time.
Now we think we have done the reviewer’s equivalent of painting ourselves into a corner. Around this time last year we saw a work in progress cut of Diablo Rojo and we kind of fell in love with the beautiful mess that it was back then. There was something about the DIY can-do spirit of thing that showed remarkable promise to be at the very least a good midnighter option for the genre festival circuit. There was just the right amount of an air of not taking itself too seriously and enjoying the moment that gave it promise. Truly independent in spirit and execution Diablo Rojo comes with bumps and bruises but dammit it worked. It was crude and rude and we liked it.
Something happened along the way in the re-edit. Either the filmmakers chose to play it close to the chest, play it safe and not go all out the first time around. Perhaps it was reverence of the folklore and traditions that the production did not want to come across as disrespectful. The shame of it is that a lot of the great horror effects gets lost in the edit. The horror of the monsters seems an afterthought in this new mix. There are moments of confusion in the new edit as well, where it is difficult to work out now how events and action is rolling out on screen. Some of it is left to fill in the blanks, some of it needs a second glance to see what just happened.
There were a host of special effects in the work in progress edit that were really, really, wonderful - and yes, perhaps silly - practical gore effects that would appeal to any horror fan around the world. Some of these effects were lost in the final cut. To guess as to why, we can only presume was because the filmmakers chose to take a more serious approach to the final edit. There was one we remember so fondly, near the end of the film, that involved the raking of melting flesh off of a face. It was crude, yes, but it was so gross that horror fans would have taken so much delight in that moment. As it stands that scene is more of a ball of confusion now as to what is happening to the victims.
We think we also have to be careful about the “Us vs. Them” matchup that happens in Diablo Rojo and other films exploring things that go bump in the night. With exception to a band of cannibals these four men are always facing off against evil women. It is a bit of a catch-22 because cultures are ripe with folklore that has been left untouched or unrepresented. However, there is a lot of tales about evil women that was born out of patriarchal societies led by men who feared women because they are more awesome than us. In our efforts to control them we made them sinister and evil, which is so much easier than working towards parity and equality.
Diablo Rojo is still decent and fun horror movie. It is a good thing for Panama. It is a good thing for the horror scene coming out of that country, proving that they can contribute to the genre scene in the LatAm region. In the last year it has been impressed upon us that if regional filmmakers can think beyond local and aim towards international audiences and international appeal there will always be a bigger audience for their films. It is a tricky balance, one that we do not envy anyone who tries. Especially in instances when you are using local legends as your antagonist. You want to represent your home team, we get it.
Diablo Rojo works as a presentation of the monsters and folklore of the interior region of Panama. To be honest Diablo Rojo is comical how each mention of a monster seems to summons them out of the darkness. “My mother told me of these cannibals…” then the cannibals appear and chaos ensues. Nom nom nom. Waaaaugh. Stop inviting *that* guy on road trips.
Please do not get us wrong. There is enough horror and fun elements in this final cut of Diablo Rojo to make any horror fan happy. Give it a chance if you find it`s playing at a festival near your. It's just… we know there was a lot more that could have made you ecstatic. Still, Diablo Rojo marks a good starting point for filmmakers Sol Moreno and Jota Najera. With time, their love of all things horror and commitment to building up the horror filmmaking community in Panama will reap greater rewards.