THE STORY – 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.
THE CAST – Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani & Forouzan Jamshidnejad
THE TEAM – Ali Abbasi (Director/Writer) & Afshin Kamran Bahrami (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 116 Minutes
By Amy Smith
Within the first five minutes of “Holy Spider,” mouths were immediately on the floor at the Cannes Film Festival. What occurs may be enough to turn people away from Ali Abbasi’s (“Border) latest film instantly, but as soon as the title credits flash on the screen, the investment kicks in like a shock to the system. Ali Abbasi does not start his film the way you would expect, opting instead to throw his audience into the deep end of the shocking killings that are going on in the holy city of Mashhad. This initial shock later turns to disbelief and disgust throughout the rest of this film as Abbasi takes us on a dark and twisted journey few other filmmakers are willing to go to.
Based on a true story that took place between 2000-2001, a man scours the city looking for female sex workers to murder. Female journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) travels to Mashhad ready to report on the killings that are going on but immediately deals with sexism when settling into the city. When attempting to check in at a hotel as a single, unmarried woman, she is stopped and questioned until she shows them her ID card, proving that she is indeed a working journalist. Discrimination against women within the country may be more blatant within the main storyline of the killings. Still, these little details help to highlight the egregious intolerance across even the local businesses and other areas which are touted as safe-havens. Abbasi wants us to know how women must follow different strict rules in Iran, including wearing headscarves and concealing their hair while out in public. Those selling their bodies for money on the streets and showing so much as a curl of hair to make themselves clear to their potential men without revealing themselves in public may face fatal consequences. Such danger and mistreatment are necessary to comprehend Abbasi’s own anger towards fundamentalists not just in Iran but all over the world.
What’s most surprising about “Holy Spider” is how much screen time Abbasi spends focusing on Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), the man killing the prostitutes. Known as the Spider Killer, it is reported that Saeed has killed ten women by the time we are introduced to him. To place a decent amount of screen time on such an evil antagonist is a bold move, yet the writing for Saeed makes it almost impossible to sympathize with him, as a character, in any way. Instead, Abbasi wants us to grasp better the social and psychological issues pertaining to this aggression. It is terrifying to see Saeed getting on with his daily life and calmly spending time with his wife and kids, especially during scenes where a dead body is lying under the same roof. He truly believes that he is doing a good thing by killing these women and “cleansing the streets” of prostitutes, and the fact that this film is based on a true story makes this character and his warped mindset all the more frightening and emotionally compelling.
Some audience members will certainly question why Ali Abbasi decides to show the murder of not just one but several women on screen in such graphic detail, all from the male killer’s point of view. It certainly is a valid criticism, and indeed, one less murder could’ve been shown without sacrificing the story’s themes. However, each of the separate murders does add something to the narrative, whether it is a woman who spoke with Rahimi previously or one particularly close call for Saeed where not everything goes as planned. While the murders are fully shown on-screen, the lack of heavy lighting or fancy editing strips the scenes to their rawest essence so that the focus is on the impact of the action itself. There is nothing to distract the audience as we are forced to watch these senseless tragedies unfold as Saeed is able to kill with ease and without remorse.
It may sound like a weird comparison, but in many ways, “Holy Spider” feels like 2019’s “Joker” in terms of the film’s central perspective and what it has to say about the dark underbelly of society. However, there are valid reasons to make this comparison, and a lot of them have to do with how Abbasi ends his story. The narrative becomes so much bigger than just Saeed and his various murders. It’s about how his story may be able to inspire a new generation of men who share the same beliefs as him. Towards the end of the film, when Rahimi speaks to Saeed’s family, a particular piece of footage is shown of a character in their final moments, which might just be even more horrifying than the murders themselves. This story arc highlights the attitude toward women within certain cultures across the world and how powerful one message can be when it is shared with the public, taking on a life of its own and turning into something bigger and more terrifying than the act itself: an ideology. A movement such as this may start with one man and his twisted mind, but it becomes so much more than when it is politically charged and fuelled by passionate hatred.
Very few films can leave as much of a visceral impact as “Holy Spider” does. It is bleak, uncomfortable, and challenging, but that is something many of us need to face in a world so driven by racism, sexism, misogyny, and any other form of discrimination you can possibly think of. One cannot seek to conquer evil unless one understands evil, and Abbasi not only knows this but is daring enough to make sure we understand it as well. It’s complex and candid subject matter, which will undoubtedly be a tough sell for many people. Still, hopefully, they are willing to hear what Ali Abbasi has to say, even if he says it in such an uncompromising way.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The first five minutes are shocking and effectively hooks the audience in. Ali Abbasi is not afraid to make his viewpoint clear and showcase the political landscape of Iran at this moment. Fantastic performances.
THE BAD – It is perhaps unnecessary to show as many killings on-screen. Some audiences may find the narrative to be too formulaic and predictable.
THE OSCAR PROSPECTS – Best International Feature Film
THE FINAL SCORE – 8/10