Keep your eyes open.
Saeed Hanaei’s (Mehdi Bajestani) compulsion has grown to uncontrollable levels. So, it’s only a matter of time before he’s caught—if Mashhad’s police want to catch him. That’s the question Tehran journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) asks upon arriving at the holy city. Nine women (all prostitutes) had already been strangled to death and dumped in and around the same area with no leads or suspects to be found. Either the department is inept, the so-called “Spider Killer” is a genius, or the crimes aren’t something the public wants stopped. That’s not to say young women aren’t scared they could be next or that fathers aren’t telling their daughter to stay home after dark. They’re simply not shedding any tears for the “godless” victims who “deserved” their tragic fates.
Based upon the real-life Mashhad serial killer who took sixteen lives between 2000 and 2001, Ali Abbasi‘s Holy Spider (co-written with Afshin Kamran Bahrami) is less interested in the spree than the circumstances that allowed it. Everything starts making sense when Rahimi enters her hotel only to be told a mistake was made and the reservation she booked was no longer valid. He says this right after discovering that she’s alone and unmarried through a series of invasive questions. The misogyny is palpable as they assume she’s up to no good—that her room will become a revolving door of suitors before long. And despite relenting once she explains she’s a journalist, they pivot into domineering demands for her to cover her hair (despite already wearing a hijab).
We therefore see that Saeed’s sentiments as far as “cleansing the streets in God’s name” aren’t so far-removed from the consensus held by this pious neighborhood. One victim’s mother tells Rahimi that she’s glad her daughter was murdered because it’s better to have a dead child than one who was a sex worker. The police chief (Sina Parvaneh‘s Rostami) pulls no punches where it concerns making certain she knows he’s in charge and able to do whatever he wants to her. And local crime reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) recommends she return home because he’s afraid her “brazen” pursuit of truth is going to get her killed by someone other than the man they’re hunting. It should come as no surprise then that Saeed’s inevitable capture won’t guarantee justice.
Why? Because others agree God is on his side. Saeed targets women that are deemed “worthless.” Mashhad sees him as someone willing to do what the police won’t. The idea that public opinion could sway the court or that someone like Saeed’s son Ali (Mesbah Taleb) could take up his mantle is therefore nightmarishly captivating. That’s how culturally ingrained this hatred towards women is—and not just in Iran. Abbasi states that his film isn’t a direct comment on his homeland’s repression, but that of the world at-large. I’m not sure the text agrees considering it makes no comparisons elsewhere while focusing solely on Muslims in a site of pilgrimage that houses the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, but I get wanting to toe that line with generalizations.
Unfortunately, we don’t get to engage with that result quite as deeply as you may expect. Most of the film depicts Saeed finding women to kill while growing distant from his wife Fatima (Forouzan Jamshidnejad) as Rahimi does the dirty work the police should have commenced eight victims prior. It’s an engrossing set of parallel journeys on a collision course with effective drama, solid suspense (never lure someone you aren’t sure you can kill without also getting hurt yourself), and great performances that feels like it’s building to something big. To some extent, I guess it is. The trial begins with Fatima praising her husband and Ali hailing him a hero. But the steady propulsion also grinds to a halt as Rahimi’s boldness is suddenly rendered inert.
What had been such an active progression turns passive on a dime. With the chase finished, Rahimi can do nothing but elbow Sahrifi and say “I told you so” each time it seems Saeed is heading towards a “not guilty” verdict. And, for his part, Saeed can only wait and decide whether to plead insanity to avoid the death penalty or double-down under the assumption that the men holding his life in their hands will be patting him on the back for a job well done before long. Not knowing the real story, I will admit I was uncertain which way justice would fall. In this environment (regardless of Abbasi’s desire for us not to demonize the oppressiveness of Iran’s religious regime), it really is a coin flip.
The result is well-orchestrated if unsurprising and anti-climactic. It’s a case where the subtext takes center stage despite never advancing from start to finish. The lesson that most of the world hates women is clear throughout and nothing new is learned where that reality is concerned. That’s fine if the text picks up the slack by continuing to engross via its surface melodrama in the meantime. While Holy Spider does exactly that for the first two-thirds, however, the final act’s turn to procedural machinations does no favors. Bajestani thankfully remains undeterred. His portrayal of this zealot is the highlight of the film—moving from pious sheep to emboldened shepherd with each kill’s increased exposure. Amir-Ebrahimi is very good too—especially as an outside disrupter at the beginning.
I only wish the film gave her character more to do towards the end. Where her Rahimi had equal footing with Saeed for the majority, she becomes rendered two-dimensional once her role as his captor is fulfilled. The production value, performances, and underlying themes are enough to warrant a watch despite any letdown, though. Chalk it up to being a true story with a conclusion that’s not as riveting as the journey preceding it. Not that there needed to be some over-the-top action-packed insanity. I just wonder if it was too quiet to give us anything to hold onto as we leave the theater that we didn’t already have coming in. Maybe Abbasi should have attacked Iran more directly after all. He might have had more to say.
 Zar Amir Ebrahimi In a scene from HOLY SPIDER, credit to Utopia
 Zar Amir Ebrahimi and Arash Ashtiani in a scene from HOLY SPIDER, credit Utopia
 Mehdi Bajestani In a scene from HOLY SPIDER, credit Utopia