SXSW Film Festival Movie Review: NUMBER 37

 Randall and Pam fear for their lives whilst they watch the movements of their potential target | Credit: Lindsey Appolis

Randall and Pam fear for their lives whilst they watch the movements of their potential target | Credit: Lindsey Appolis

If Quentin Tarantino gave Alfred Hitchcock a foot massage, NUMBER 37 would almost certainly be the resulting love child. Now, I know that’s not the most appealing image but I ask that you picture it for me in graphic detail: Tarantino’s weird, angular face contorting wildly as Hitchcock jiggles and undulates in response to every passionate rub, gradually escalating in passion and intensity until… BOOM! Out pops director Nosipho Dumisa’s NUMBER 37!

One of the coolest things about reviewing for Nightmarish Conjurings is the chance to see films I usually wouldn’t from all around the world. While most of the fare I’m assigned to watch and write about is firmly rooted in genre - be it fantasy, horror, or thriller - I think it’s increasingly becoming the norm for filmmakers to use these structures as prisms through which to shine the lights of their own personal worlds.

In NUMBER 37, Dumisa gives us a horror-tinged crime thriller from South Africa that doesn’t exactly paint its country in a flattering pose. Its palette is stocked with crime, filth, and violence - all framed by police lines fluttering in the breeze. South Africa is a tough place, and NUMBER 37 doesn’t let us forget that for a minute. 

We follow Randal Hendricks, a lowlife lockpicker who - with the aim of buying and selling drugs in large quantities - takes a $25,000 loan from a vicious criminal. Things predictably go bad, leaving Randal paralyzed below the hip and his best friend dead. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Randal finds no respite as the loan shark comes calling. He’s forced to find the money and repay it within 7 days, or face death for himself and his girlfriend, Pam.

While his intentions were initially good, hoping to make enough money to pull them out of the hole of poverty so many South Africans are trapped in, Randal consistently makes poor decisions and puts his friends and loved ones in danger. Completely emasculated and unable to work, Randal takes his frustrations out on Pam. 

Then - and this is where the Hitchcock influence comes in - Randal becomes a regular Jimmy Stewart, donning a pair of binoculars and spying on his neighbors. While peering into the building across the way, he witnesses the murder of a detective, and soon hatches a plan to blackmail the perpetrators out of money he saw them carrying in a duffel bag.

The cast manages to conjure solid performances from the grim material, remaining likeable in the face of their characters’ moral bankruptcy. The good guys aren’t exactly good guys, and the bad guys are really, really bad. The writing is sharp, providing enough twists to keep the audience engaged, and the eventual payoff is worth the investment.

But the real highlights are the tensely orchestrated cat and mouse sequences where Randal watches the villains hunt his companions across the way. The editing is clever, flicking from room to room, leaving us to watch helplessly as a bad guy stalks next door to our protagonists without them knowing, us screaming for them to get the hell out of there!

NUMBER 37 is a genuinely surprising treat, and it’s great to see something like it come out of South Africa. It makes the best of what it has, and despite some derivative elements, it’s a taut Hitchcockian thriller that’s better than a foot rub from Quentin Tarantino.

NonSequitur