It’s fair to say that most of the films screening under the banner of FrightFest at GFF ’21 are linked to the horror genre tangentially at best. Only exorcism chiller The Old Ways lands squarely within the recognisable boundaries. We round up three of the other FrightFest screenings, taking in neo-noir, action thriller, and a serial killer romance.

The Woman with Leopard Shoes (Alexis Bruchon/ France/ 2020/ 80 mins) is something of a locked room mystery viewed from inside the room. A burglar (Paul Bruchon) agrees to break into a supposedly empty house to retrieve a box. When the house begins to fill up with guests arriving for a party, he’s forced to hide in an office. It turns out that he’s not alone, although the hole in the other fellow’s head suggests he isn’t going to be much company. The burglar has to piece together what’s going on, who is behind it, and how he can make his escape. The titular woman who hired him claims to be as baffled as he is, but does she know more than she’s letting on?

Made for $3000 during lockdown, The Woman with Leopard Shoes feels like first-time director Bruchon has challenged himself to make the most ambitious film he can with the minimum of resources. Told largely without dialogue, relying on text messages and intelligent sound design, it occasionally feels like an escape room designed by Alfred Hitchcock. This is amplified by the targeted box acting as the McGuffiest of McGuffins, the key that winds up the mechanism of the plot. Shot in a lush black and white, with crisp shadows almost as inviting as they are threatening, it’s a fun, high concept noir that stretches its lean 80 minutes to breaking point. It occasionally works better as an intriguing experiment than as a satisfying narrative, but it’s disproportionately impressive given its modest scale. 3/5.

Far less startling is lumpy action thriller American Badger (Kirk Caouette/ Canada/ 2021/ 82 mins), a vanity project for stuntman and fight co-ordinator Kirk Caouette. The man himself stars as Dean, a hitman who compares himself to the American badger, an aggressive and anti-social cousin of the familiar European variant. This zoological tidbit may be the most interesting things about this gormless mess. Given an assignment to seduce and then kill a Slovakian cam-girl Andrea Stefancikova for reasons of some description, he unsurprisingly falls for her and has to massacre his way out of the mess this causes.

Sadly, Caouette is clearly intending to show he’s about more than kicking people before shooting them in the head. He should really glue his writing fingers back on the trigger. As a leading man, he has all the vitality of a snipped marionette, and as a writer he’s given to cod-philosophy and spoon-fed narration read with the joie de vivre of a suicidal speaking clock. While has does have a good eye for an action set-piece, it still feels like a low-rent mashup of John Wick and The Raid made by someone who once watched Le Samouraï. Some viewers may glean some ironic joy from it, but when the work of Neil Breen exists, why would you want to? 1/5.

Like an arthouse take on Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Out of the World (Marc Fouchard/ France/ 2020/ 96 mins) is a deeply troubling and claustrophobic journey through the mind of Leo (Kévin Mischel), an intense and introverted taxi driver who yearns to become a musician. He becomes attracted to the pretty Amélie (Aurélia Poirier), a deaf dancer and it looks like the two lonely souls may have some future. However, Leo has the darkest of secrets: he’s a serial murderer of women.

Out of the World is undeniably a provocative work that won’t allow the viewer dismiss Leo as a monster in the same way they can Michael Rooker‘s Henry. Therein lies the problem. Leo is all too human, and once his true nature is revealed there is nothing to cling to; the viewer is left scrabbling like Dr No for a handhold that isn’t there. Are we supposed to root for him? Are we to hope that Amélie and his music can be some kind of redemption? In honesty, this does not appear to be Fouchard’s intention. He deliberately and cleverly uses Leo’s music – pleasant stuff in the vein of Clint Mansell and Max Richter – both as a score and in a diagetic fashion; a duality that mirrors that of its creator. As a score it’s often used during Leo’s murders, undercutting any symbolism this may have as a saving grace for him. Fouchard dares you to stay the course, and you do, more than partially out of dread for the adorable, guileless Amélie.

So then, Fouchard’s film appears to be a victim of its own success. It’s too well-conceived, too well-made, and too well-performed to be be dismissed as a piece of exploitation cinema. This makes it feel far more problematic than some grubby slasher. At the centre is a truly disturbing and damaged performance by Mischel, carrying the same edge of wiry, unpredictable danger that Noah Taylor brought to the similarly tough Red White & Blue. The queasiness comes from his skill in finding the merest slivers of sympathy in Leo, even after the horrendous lurch that comes after we discover what he is. Bold, vertiginous filmmaking that is easy to admire, but with a fatally difficult and subjective point of view that makes it practically impossible to recommend. 2/5.

All screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival