Hear me out, a bus driver, his teen sidekick, two cops, and a priest go into the jungle…No, it’s not the start of a tawdry joke. When combined with a coven of vengeful witches, it’s the basic plot of the first horror movie horror movie to hail from Panama, Diablo Rojo PTY. A bit slight, directors Sol Moreno and J. Oskura Najera nevertheless create a strange, dark, witch-infested descent into hell.
In Panama, Diablo Rojos, which translates to Red Devils, are wild, gaudy busses that roam city streets. Festooned with bright lights and elaborate murals, they look like insane party busses and have a reputation for being dangerous to both passengers and those around them. Most were busses no longer deemed safe by American standards and thus shipped elsewhere, and they’ve actually been outlawed in many places, probably for good reason.
Diablo Rojo PTY revolves around a jaded bus driver, Miguel (Carlos Carrasco, Speed, Blood In, Blood Out) and his brash teen sidekick, Junito (Julian Urriola). After a frightening encounter with a bruja, they wind up with a pair of cops on their bus, a small-town priest (Leo Wiznitzer) in tow, and a coven of revenge-minded witches on all sides.
Steeped in folklore, the story calls to mind Baskin, to a point, as the characters gradually sink into a realm of nightmare logic. Time stops at midnight, they wind up in a remote jungle hundreds of kilometers away when they only drove for an hour, and a series of hidden, intertwined pasts emerge demonstrating this is no mere random coincidence or case of ill-fortune. They essentially drift through nowhere and no time, not able to get anywhere or escape.
The witches are terrifying, feral and wild, mythic and grounded, and definitely not above ritual sacrifice or eating a baby to further their vendetta. However, while vicious and bloodthirsty, underlying reasons and very real social imbalances pushed them to extremes. They’re not the only hazard, as the specter of cannibals and other potential fabled threats also loom large. And this movie isn’t afraid to blow up a church should the need arise.
There are legitimately gnarly practical gore effects that include fingers being torn off and peeled faces. As the bus navigates the isolated backroads of the remote jungle, the juxtaposition of the vivid, overwhelming brightness and the near-pitch-black surroundings creates an eerie, indelible image. The bus looks so wholly alien and out of place it drives home the otherworldliness and unreality of the situation.
The score by Ricardo Risco doesn’t entirely fit the surroundings, but somehow works and only adds to the air of strangeness and unreality. Conducted by a Panamanian orchestra, it feels like something lifted from an old school TV thriller score, like in moments, based solely on the music, you almost expect the characters to pause in silence as the action fades to commercial. But again, it leads to an unsettling sensation where things don’t always match up the whole is more unnerving as a result, especially since it’s nearly omnipresent.
Diablo Rojo PTY definitely has some early-in-their-career filmmaker yips. Even at a lean 76 minutes, there’s down time. Characters make questionable choices, like Junito’s decision to blaze up at inopportune moments and constant splitting up and wandering alone into the darkness, as well as other inconsistencies and gaps. At times the threadbare budget and lack of resources shine through, and it’s hard not to wish the film delved more into the local lore and underlying inequalities that pushed these witches to this place than it does. There’s certainly room, and it’s a missed opportunity to play up the film’s most distinctive elements.
But Diabo Rojo PTY is also a movie with an idea and the directors aren’t afraid to shoot their shot and go big—you have to love the enthusiasm. There are crazy, bordering on ridiculous practical creature effects, bad dream hallucinations, and occasional grotesque violence, both in idea and execution. The entire picture has a pervasive weirdness and a unique perspective we don’t often encounter in horror—it’s familiar but also something we haven’t seen—and because of that, it’s well worth a look for curious genre fans. [Grade: B]