Holy Spider (FANTASTIC) Tracks a Religiously Motivated Serial Killer
Title: Holy Spider
First Non-Festival Release: July 13, 2022 Year (Theatrical Release)
Director: Ali Abbasi
Writer: Ali Abbasi, Afshin Kamaran Bahrami
Runtime: 116 Minutes
Starring: Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtani
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
This film’s review was written after its screening at the Fantastic Film Festival in 2022.
Journeying to the holy city of Mashhad, Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), hopes to uncover the reason why so many sex workers end up missing or dead at the hands of a serial killer. She meets with reporters and police but has trouble finding anyone to take her seriously. Thankfully, she finds an ally in the reluctant Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), who is in contact with a man who claims to be the Spider Killer (Mehdi Bajestani). The pair follow the clues to apprehend the killer when it is clear that the police find the entire process as waste of time and resources. This leads Rahimi to face against the killer alone.
An intense deconstruction of the politics of sex, gender, and politics brings alive the true events behind Holy Spider.
Holy Spider takes real-life events and unapologetically details the account in a disturbing yet grounded manner. The horror of a serial killer is punctuated with society’s venom for sex workers, and by extension, women who refuse to fit a standard mold. It’s clear that religion is central to the citizens of early 2000s Iran, and the dogmatic adherence to text prompts swaths of people into rooting for a serial killer. Audience members can watch in terror as people who seem very sweet and ordinary get corrupted by religious violence. It’s even more disturbing watching the killer justify his own actions.
Watching a killer twist the world around him to satisfy his sick need to control and explain away his hatred of women through religion is terrifying. Mehdi Bajestani’s portrayal of Saeed is so compelling because he is so average. On the surface, he seems like a typical father and husband, but boiling underneath is a rage and obsession that cannot be quelled. This is important to understand because while misogyny exists on a sliding scale from blatant to under-the-radar, these attitudes can oftentimes potentiate into something even more insidious: rape, abuse, trafficking, and murder to name a few. Saeed carries this horrific energy, brought about by how unassuming he is despite the storm brewing inside him and the one he ignites in half the country.
This hatred of women extends to Rahimi, a female journalist who has a bad reputation for challenging the status quo. From the beginning, it is clear that Rahimi has an ironclad will that cannot be dominated easily. She pushes back when she is treated poorly and only backs down when that is the only way to preserve her safety. Due to her inability to stick to what society wants, she has to work harder to do her job as resources, relationships, and time dwindle around her. She is everything that Saeed hates in a woman without the specific sin of sex work. That’s what makes her ultimate choice to go undercover to expose him so daring and unexpected.
Zar Amir-Ebrahimi’s show of tremendous strength as a resilient reporter draws upon her real-life struggles in her home country. She navigates the dauntless efforts of her character dodging danger at every turn while holding true to the passion and care that fuels her. Not only is she a superb actress in finding the complexities of her strong-willed character, she is facing serious backlash for supporting the film, especially after the sensationalized “scandal” she emerged from years ago. That scandal involved a consensual sex tape being released without her consent, which prompted Iran to invoke new morality laws.
Serial killer thrillers based on true events can be difficult to stomach considering the source material feeds off real suffering. The timeliness of Holy Spider amplifies its message of support for women in Iran during a particularly tumultuous time in history by reflecting the institutional failures of a government that does the bare minimum to protect women. Violence against women is sadly common across cultures and Holy Spider refuses to let religion be used as an excuse for encouraging femicide. This film will do more than ruffle feathers, but the stakes are too high. Strong performances and an unflinching commitment to realism make Holy Spider an uncomfortable yet necessary watch.
Overall Score? 7/10