Directed by Sol Moreno and J. Oskura Nájera
Written by J. Oskura Nájera and Adair Dominguez
Starring Carlos Carrasco, Natalia Beluche, Julián Urriola, Alejandra Araúz, Renán Fernández, Leo Wiznitzer.
Ah, remember when going to a festival meant seeing other people? The smell of popcorn, the filmmakers’ anxiety, thick as the butter on the pochoclo itself? COVID-19 had other plans for 2020, but thankfully, festivals are still taking place. You may have already read some of our Fantasia 2020 coverage. Another such event is Horrible Imaginings, San Diego’s most fiendish gathering. Originally launched in 2009, this year’s edition kicked off with our very own Uncle Peckerhead, and runs September 1-7. One of the feature films screening at this rather excellent shindig is Diablo Rojo (PTY), Panama’s first horror flick. So, what’s it all about?
Sol Moreno’s debut is, in short, an ode to the b-grade horror and practical effects which reigned in the glorious period of time known as the 80s. What sets this one apart from the pack, however, is the setup: using an intoxicating blend of Indigenous folklore and Panamanian idiosyncrasy, Moreno has crafted one for the books.
You join the story during a routine bus ride through the streets of the capital city, drivers manically racing each other, passengers fearing for their lives. I wish I could say that I’m not familiar with this scene, but the truth is that Paraguay is no different than Panama in that regard. More than once I’ve been on a ride with the utmost certainty that it would be my last. But that’s not the only reason I connected with the film.
Despite a missed opportunity to re-write Indigenous representation in South American horror films, Sol Moreno’s effort has managed to incorporate plenty of Panama’s native folklore into a story of discrimination, love and loss. The universality of its themes, intertwined with the unique setting upon which they are told, make Diablo Rojo (PTY) an elixir of celluloid that’s difficult to resist.
The film’s biggest allure for me, however, is the amazing use of practical effects. In an age dominated by cheap CGI, Moreno has chosen to embrace puppetry and corn syrup, and it brings endless joy to my heart. The execution might be a bit rough around the edges, sure, but when does that not add to a movie’s charm? I’ll take rough practical effects over perfect CGI every day of the week.
As for the other aspects of filmmaking as a craft, Diablo Rojo (PTY) is, once again, a bit of a mixed bag. The acting can go from incredibly strong to passable rather quickly, before returning to a pretty high standard. Overall, while it doesn’t completely detract from the experience, you can tell some of the performers did not have too many credits to their names. I’m happy to report, though, that the cinematography and sound design are superb. As a film techie and fan-nerd of all things soundscape, I must say this pleases me.
On a personal note, being a Hispanic filmmaker myself, I had high hopes for this red devil of a movie. If not for the technical promise, then for the simple fact that we just don’t see enough horror films being made in Latin America. Add to this the fact that Diablo Rojo (PTY) is directed by a woman, a woman responsible for organizing Panama’s original horror film festival, and it becomes impossible to overstate just how important this flick is.
Could it have been better? Sure. The acting could have been stronger, and the approach to telling Indigenous stories could have been more redemptive. But this is still a fun love-letter to the 80s, and when such correspondence is written on the parchment paper of historic filmmaking, one can’t help but sit up, take notice, and enjoy the ride.
Diablo Rojo (PTY) is a film that must be consumed with a certain awareness about the conditions under which was made to fully appreciate. What I mean to say is, once you understand how limited resources are in Panama, just how much of a struggle it is to get any kind of film made in such a country, let alone a horror film, you can only marvel at the fact that the film was made at all.
Even without taking into consideration the precariousness of how it came to be, however, I honestly feel like anybody who enjoys a good bloody film will have a bloody good time with Diablo Rojo (PTY). After all, who doesn’t like flying witches?
As parting words, I’ll leave you with a tiny bit of extra wisdom: PTY are the letters representing the main international airport in Panama city.
Never say we never taught you anything.
Diablo Rojo (PTY) sometimes falters, but overall delivers in its aim to craft a timeless story of love and loss set against Indigenous folklore and Panamanian idiosyncrasy.