The Central American country of Panama is not generally known for its cinema. However, director Sol Moreno, a native of David, Panama, is trying to change that. In her directorial debut Diablo Rojo PTY, Moreno gives her audience a glimpse into rural Panamanian culture and folklore with a horror flick that’s both terrifying and hilarious at times.
If you’re a fan of foreign cinema as a way to learn about distant cultures, Diablo Rojo PTY is an enlightening portrayal of the superstitions of Panama’s Chiriqui province that’s as entertaining as it is informative.
The film follows a bus driver, his assistant, a priest, and two police officers as they get hunted down by witches and cannibals across the country. Yes, the dialogue of the film can be a bit cheesy at times and the plot takes some unnecessary diversions but, on the whole, this is a film that’s totally worth a watch, especially for anyone who lives in or has visited Panama.
Diablo Rojo PTY feels a lot like a throwback to the 1980s era of horror flicks, specifically in its soundtrack and cinematography. The film features some deliciously campy special effects, hilarious one-liners, spine-chilling gore, and solid acting performances.
However, the most fascinating part of the film is the way in which Sol Moreno is able to take the folklore and culture passed down to her through her childhood to the global stage in this fear-inspiring depiction of the jungles of Chiriqui. This film will teach you loads about the region’s local brand of Christianity, the superstitious beliefs that coexist with that Christianity, the vulgar slang that is so generously employed across Panama, and, of course, about the diablos rojos.
This film is a must-watch for amateur anthropologists with an interest in the local beliefs of Chiriqui. Movie buffs will appreciate the directorial acumen of Sol Moreno. And unoccupied stoners will appreciate the trippy scenes of witches dancing around the woods and one of the main characters avoiding death by lighting up a joint. Panamanians and extranjeros alike should give Diablo Rojo PTY a watch.
Where Does the Name Come From?
The term diablo rojo refers to a type of bus that is very important to the history Panama’s capital Panama City. For many years, these buses were the only form of public transport in the city. They were loud, adorned with graffiti-style paintings, and often driven extremely recklessly.
According to Sol Moreno, these buses even used to race each other to see which one could arrive at the destination the quickest. As you can probably imagine, traveling through the streets of Panama used to be a rather terrifying endeavor. Luckily, these buses were outlawed in the country in 2010.
While many people are happy about the disappearance of the diablos rojos, some still consider these buses a cultural symbol of the city and the country as a whole. Apparently, Sol Moreno agreed, as she decided to name her debut film after them.
In an interview, Moreno spoke on why exactly she chose these buses to be the main pillar of her film, saying, “The drivers and helpers were quirky, so the movie is also about a Red Devil’s chauffeur and helper. The Red Devil is the only shelter from the terrors of the night.”
The abbreviation “PTY” refers to Tocumen International Airport, the main airport in Panama City. However, locals often colloquially refer to the entire city using the same abbreviation.
Much of the inspiration for Diablo Rojo PTY comes from stories that Sol Moreno heard from her elders, pieces of passed-down folklore specific to her home province of Chiriqui. One such story that had a profound impact on the film was that of “La Tulivieja” (or the giant witch-like creature with exposed breasts that those who have seen the film will surely remember).
The legend of “La Tulivieja” is common throughout Panama and Costa Rica and is very similar to the story of “La Llorona” which is popular in Mexico and Venezuela (and which inspired the 2019 film La Llorona).
As the story goes, la tulivieja was once a beautiful girl who had a secret affair with a man from her hometown. The relationship resulted in a pregnancy, which the girl was desperate to cover up. So, when she had the child, she quickly drowned it in a river. As a result, she was cursed by God to wander the rivers in search of her child in the form of a horrible monster.
La tulivieja is often depicted as a short woman with swollen and exposed breasts, which sometimes leak milk. Apparently, swarms of ants follow her around and eat up the milk that she leaves in her wake. She is also said to have inverted legs, similar to a bird of prey, and bird-like or bat-like wings.
Another myth that appears briefly in Diablo Rojo PTY is that of the Conejo Indians, a legendary tribe of natives that is said to live in the jungles around the Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro provinces. The word conejo translates to English as “rabbit” and so these people are sometimes referred to as the “rabbit men” by English speakers.
According to legend, the people of this tribe are short in stature, have hair that hangs down to their waists, paint themselves up with black and white stripes to appear more like rabbits, and sharpen their teeth with rocks so that they can tear into human flesh.
In some accounts, these people even have glowing red eyes. Apparently, they are also nocturnal and hide in dark caves during the day (because sunlight would make them blind). And, as a result of their poor eyesight, they have highly developed senses of smell that help them track down human victims from miles away. They supposedly believe that consuming other humans allows them to absorb the life-power of the consumed.
In Panama, as well as in many other countries throughout Latin America, there is a strong belief in witches or brujas. In these cultures, witches are not simply storybook fantasy characters but real practitioners of dark magic that can have real consequences on real lives.
It’s not uncommon to hear someone in Panama attribute a downturn in business or a family member falling ill to dark magic. When people go missing in Panama, there are many people throughout the country that will first assume that the witches got to them.
As is seen in Diablo Rojo PTY, witches can also play tricks on people such as getting them lost and causing them to panic. There are also stories of witches stealing babies and eating them to consume during rituals, a myth that is also depicted in the film.
Being that Panama is a largely Catholic country, witchcraft is thought to be opposed to the will of the Catholic God, which is why sacred items such as crucifixes and holy water are thought to deter witches. And, as we see at the end of Diablo Rojo PTY, witches are also believed by some to be repelled by smoke, which is why one of our protagonists is able to protect himself by lighting up a doobie.
The Importance of Folklore
Films and other forms of media like Diablo Rojo PTY that help to preserve local folklores are important for understanding the beliefs and superstitions that shape many people’s worldviews. In our modern age of science and objectivism, it’s easy to dismiss such stories as La Tuliveija and the Conejo Indians as nonsense.
However, these mythologies have affected the ways that people have interacted with each other and the world around them for generations, and so they’re certainly worth preserving and understanding. On top of that, who doesn’t like a good ghost story?