In Holy Spider, a journalist tackles Iran’s dark side to investigate a serial killer known as the Spider Killer
It feels particularly pertinent to be watching this film on a day when Iranian women are making headlines the world over for their protests against the misogynistic murder of one of their own, and yet Holy Spider is not telling a brand-new tale for 2022. It is a dramatization of the true story of a serial killer who stalked the streets of the holy city of Mashhad in the years 2000-2001, killing a total of 16 women. With the police failing to make any headway in the case, rebellious journalist Arezoo Rahimi (a Cannes award winning Zar Amir-Ebrahmi) takes increasingly reckless measures to find the killer herself.
Holy Spider is the new film from Ali Abassi, previously known for the much-celebrated Border (2018.) Though early in his career Abassi is quickly becoming a big name on the world stage, joining the pantheon of fantastic Iranian filmmakers bringing their home country to a wider audience.
It’s a familiar story that the serial killer obsessed general public will lap up. It has echoes of Zodiac with the killer himself choosing to communicate his ideology with the media, and anyone who’s watched a half dozen episodes of any serial killer police procedural will find themselves psychoanalyzing the suspect and picking apart the investigation. But the backdrop against which this story is set is what makes it a truly fresh film with an exciting viewpoint.
The Holy Spider killer is targeting ‘undesirable’ or ‘morally corrupt’ women, killing sex workers and drug users that walk the streets outside a holy shrine. As Rahimi investigates the case it becomes apparent that no one is all that invested in stopping the murders, there’s an overarching suggestion that he is ‘cleaning up the streets’ and she has good reason to worry that the local police, clerics and populace will not attempt to stop him.
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We the audience know who the killer is from the very start as we follow his crimes, Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) is a former soldier who claims to be on a mission from God. The murders themselves are captured in bone crunching, unflinching detail that will have viewers wincing, all the while he plays the loving family man to his wife and children. Bajestani makes a truly chilling killer, mastering the terrifying confidence of someone who believes what they are doing is right, the unfailing obsession of a man swept up in a life altering ideology that only grows stronger as society becomes aware of his crimes.
Holy Spider keeps you on a knife edge throughout, unlike with western set films where the conceit is ‘will the killer be caught?’ The question here is ‘if he is caught will he even be punished?’ As Rahimi’s investigation is continually hindered by outside forces due who are dismissive of her gender, and a growing faction of the local populace starts to support the Spider Killer it invites the audience to not just be frustrated, angry, but outright horrified.
That sense of horror builds to a masterstroke of a final scene in which the effects of Saeed’s murders are seen on his family. As much as director Abassi uses Holy Spider to display the different factions at play within Iranian society and encourage us to question if things are truly getting more progressive the final answer seems utterly damning – insidious and deep-rooted misogyny continues to spread. Holy Spider is a fantastic piece of cinema. A masterfully crafted crime thriller that feeds the 2022 audiences’ bizarre obsession with serial killers whilst using its unique sociopolitical backdrop to further enhance our understanding of vulnerability and victimhood within this society. Visceral, gripping and hugely compelling, this is essential viewing.