Holy Spider (عنکبوت مقدس)

Holy Spider

A journalist descends into the dark underbelly of the Iranian holy city of Mashhad as she investigates the serial killings of sex workers by the so called “Spider Killer”, who believes he is cleansing the streets of sinners.

Holy Spider’ is a tense and frightening serial killer movie about Iran’s most infamous serial killer Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), a killer who targeted prostitutes in Iran’s second largest city Mashhad. At the start of the 21st century he was responsible for the murders of 16 women, getting away with it for so long on account of public attitudes and indifference to his victims on account of their lifestyle choices. In Ali Abbasi’s film (his follow up to the weirdly wonderful ‘Border’), we see this case both through the eyes of the killer himself, as well as a fictional female journalist (Arezoo Rahimi, played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi in a performance that won her the coveted Best Actress prize at Cannes last year) who travels to Mashhad to cover the case.

Abbasi broadly splits ‘Holy Spider’ into two sections, before and after Saeed is caught, with the before aspect depicting the climate and environment that allowed him to commit his crimes. We see the contrast in Saeed’s life between the seemingly normal family life during the day and the murders he commits at night, where he appears to almost stalk his victims on his motorbike. Through Arezoo, we can see how the police are not exactly approaching the case with any urgency on account of who his victims were and this is emphasised even more in the aftermath when it becomes clear that the harsh reality is that many people actually support Saeed’s actions because they buy into his view that these women were sinners and deserved what they got.

I thought ‘Holy Spider’ was a gripping movie with two great leading performances, and I felt it was even more powerful because it didn’t shy away from the ugliness and violence perpetrated by Saeed upon his victims, as difficult as it was to watch at times. I liked that it wasn’t just a straightforward serial killer thriller where the cops are on the case and eventually get their man; it is that to an extent (albeit via a reporter, not cops), but it is more of an exploration of the misogynistic culture that enabled men like Saeed to commit such crimes and feel he could get away with it because nobody cared about these women. The character of Arezoo, while fictional, is particularly important in making this point.

Holy Spider’ was Denmark’s contender for the Oscars this year and it made the December shortlist, albeit not the final list, which is a shame, as it would have benefited from that extra boost in public interest a nomination provides. Nonetheless, it’s on MUBI now (in the UK at least), and is very much worth seeking out.

Rating: 4/5

Directed By: Ali Abbasi

Starring: Mehdi Bajestani, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Arash Ashtiani, Forouzan Jamshidnejad, Sina Parvaneh, Nima Akbarpour, Mesbah Taleb, Firouz Agheli, Sara Fazilat and Alice Rahimi


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