“Holy Spider” is a disturbing crime thriller that’s based on the true story of the “Spider Killer” Saeed Hanaei, a man who murdered 16 female sex workers in Iran in the early 2000s. It’s a chilling tale of the intersection of religion, culture, social status, and sexism, and despite director Ali Abbasi sometimes crossing the line into more sordid territory, it’s a genuinely alarming film with a distressing universal message about the value of women.
Female journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) travels to the Iranian holy city of Mashhad to investigate a serial killer who is targeting local prostitutes. With skill and determination, every day brings her one step closer to exposing the perpetrator. When it’s discovered that the murderer is a charismatic family man named Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), it seems like a cut-and-dried, slam dunk of a case, especially when he admits to his crimes. But when the killer brags that he is holy man who is on a divine mission from God to clean up the streets by ridding the city of corrupt, “dirty women,” he’s embraced by many as a hero. Shockingly, Saeed isn’t seen as guilty, making justice even harder to come by.
Amir-Ebrahimi’s lead performance is wholly engrossing, and she portrays Rahimi with a forceful grace and intellect. She’s terrific as a journalist who is seeking justice yet trapped in an intense game of cat-and-mouse with a deranged serial killer who uses religion as an excuse to carry out over a dozen horrifying murders of women. Amir-Ebrahimi displays a composure that masks an underlying rage, and her strong performance carries the film.
While the story is based on real events, co-writers Abbasi and Afshin Kamran Bahrami have crafted a work of fiction for the sake of entertainment. This is imagined storytelling and not the actual truth, even though parts of this story really happened. It’s alarming and unsettling, especially when the film recreates the murders in shocking fashion, and even more so when Rahimi is faced with the stark realities of deeply-rooted traditions of misogyny that are rampant in Iranian society (and quite frankly, around the globe).
“Holy Spider” is an aggressive, unflinching film that will anger and enrage. By telling the story from a female’s point of view, it feels all the more disturbing and timely.
By: Louisa Moore