Friday, August 20, 2021

Cannibals and Midsummer in Russian-Finnish Found Footage Movie ‘Shopping Tour’ [Horrors Elsewhere]

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

Retail therapy has a high cost in Mikhail Brashinskiy’s Shopping Tour. This 2012 movie begins in Russia before shortly taking off for neighboring Finland. Teenage Stas and his mother are spending two days abroad after a lousy month back home. Yet as their tour group deviates from the original itinerary, the main characters realize the locals are not as nice as they were led to believe.

With the runtime being a little over an hour, Shopping Tour skips basic formalities; the protagonists, Stas Polansky (Timofey Yeletskiy) and his mother (Tatyana Kolganova), are already on their way to Finland at the movie’s start. Of course, this is after Mrs. Polansky gives her son the means of filming this found footager; Stas uses his new cell phone to capture what will soon be a terrifying trip. Once everyone is aboard the bus to Finland, they learn about the taxes on goods and other procedures. What Stas and the other tourists are not told, however, is what to do in case of cannibals. The tour guide is informed of an opportunity from a random Finn; a new store will close itself off to the public so only the group can shop. Unfortunately, this is all part of a fiendish plan to corral the unsuspecting Russians into a locked space and celebrate the region’s most disturbing of Midsummer traditions.

Before that first bite into Russian flesh ever takes place, Shopping Tour sets up the complicated dynamic between the main characters. Stas is a garden variety, angsty teen who likes Eminem, eats saccharine candy, and loves to test boundaries. He lies to his mother about getting food at a stop along the way and instead buys a beer because he feels grown up now. This minor betrayal triggers the silent treatment from Mrs. Polansky up until they reach the foreboding Gigantti store added to the tour schedule at the last minute. Stas’ mother is tightly wound for her own reasons, and unlike her son, she respects authority and rules. So once everything starts going down, she panics not only because there are cannibals, but because the systems in place — for her life and this trip — are entirely gone.

Mrs. Polansky is inherently compliant because of her upbringing, and she understands what happens when authority is challenged. So to someone like Stas’ mother, peace is ensured as long as the rules are followed. She watches incredulously as another tourist commits a petty crime and then acts surprised when the same person is released from custody with minimal penalty. Of course Mrs. Polansky figures the outcome would have been worse back home, and the Finns are simply kinder and more reasonable. When it all turns into a vacation from hell, Stas’ mother is shaken to her core. Her idea of relaxation was leaving her motherland of Russia behind for somewhere tranquil like Finland. To her and everyone else’s surprise, though, these particular Finns are nothing like their reputation would suggest. Other filmmakers would have the Russian characters be the cruel ones, but Brashinskiy flips the script and satirizes a country normally seen as idyllic and harmless.

Horror movies are usually forthcoming about the dangers in store for the hapless characters. Vacationers are trapped in a desert town where nuclear testing once took place. A driver pulls over at a creepy, run-down gas station during a thunderstorm. Teenagers stay overnight at an amusement park where people have since gone missing. The genre’s tendencies are transparent. Brashinskiy instead does what other found-footage filmmakers do; he insists everything is absolutely normal until it is not. A standard horror narrative clues its viewers in as early as the opening credits, whereas found footage and first-person horror thrives on surprise. The veil between ordinary life and the bizarre has to be ripped off rather than pulled back inch by inch.

At the first sign of trouble — the Polanskys discover the dead body of a fellow tourist in the store’s stockroom — Stas calls his girlfriend Katie back home for help. When asked to first explain his whereabouts for the last month, Stas reveals to both Katie and the audience his father recently died. So as it turns out, this trip was not about Mrs. Polansky looking for bargains or taking in the sights of Finland. No, she wanted a break from her grieving and, above that, a chance to reconnect with her son after having lost the other most important person in her life. Grief can go two ways in horror — it can either be the catalyst or the monster itself. Shopping Tour has the luck of being shot in the style of found footage, a subgenre not alien to unfiltered depictions of fear, grief, and trauma. Although Brashinskiy’s movie never comes close to the emotional depths of its peers or stokes the flames of physical anguish with supernatural influences, the small yet emotional moments between Stas and his mother countervail the story’s overall absurdity.

Shopping Tour is micro-budget horror done right. This $70,000 movie has more humor to spare than actual carnage, so fans of splattery cult classics like Braindead will have to look elsewhere for their bloody set pieces and exposed innards. Even so, the effort put in by critic-turned-filmmaker Brashinskiy — whose one man show includes writing, directing, producing, and editing a movie shot in a mere eleven days — is impressive. Other shoestring horrors are frugal with their entertainment, but Shopping Tour is a fresh approach to found footage and is rich with satire.


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