I cannnot believe America has tried to adapt the premise of Holy Spider yet. With streamers’ obsessions with true crime today, this true life serial killer tale would certainly capture the attention of audiences. But even amidst the glut of serial killer tales Ali Abbasi’s tale stands out because of how Iran’s spider killer also births an equally compelling study of how Iranian society might be built to produce people like this vile person.
After a horrifying, visceral introduction to how the spider killer preys on his victims, we meet female journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) on her way to Mashhad, an Iranian holy city. Being a single woman, Rahimi is met with either skepticism, like from the police detective Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) or outright hostility from the consortium of men in power, because she’s not exactly thrilled that the police don’t have any clues despite multiple murders. But Rahimi pushes forward, determined to catch this cruel man. Why does she care? Well, as we quickly learn, the spider killer, Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani) considers himself on a mission from God to purge the world of sin, specifically targeting forgotten, drug addicted women forced into the sex trade by Iranian society.
The first half of Abbasi’s movie is about the capturing of Saeed Hanaei. The, horrific, really bleak opening sequence sets the tone for what movie the audience is about to watch: captivating discomfort. The movie spends a shocking amount of time around Hanaei, as we learn quickly that this isn’t some crazy person: this is a family man completely driven by his ultra conservative tyrannical beliefs that he is justified to commit murder. I couldn’t help but squirm in my seat as Ali Abbasi makes us take someone so seemingly evil and making him somewhat relatable and human, demythologizing the spider killer but almost making the audience feel worse at the same time. Journalist Arezoo Rahimi is thank goodness a bonafide crusader for justice, but even her detective work is met with loops she has to overcome, as she quickly learns the men in power might not exactly feel too bad for the “sluts” and “lustful” women Hanaei is taking off their conservative streets. And even well meaning people like her detective partner Sharifi feel muzzled as to not rock the boat. This forces Rahimi to take bolder, and much more dangerous tactics, putting our hero directly into harms way, casting a dark tense cloud over the pursuit.
But it’s after Hanaei’s arrest that Holy Spider – ugh, let me get my pun out of my head – takes us into the real twisted web of this story. You’d think Rahimi would be more pleased that they’ve captured the spider killer, but life and the last few weeks have taught her better. The real battle begins now, with Iranian law and the beliefs of the people in power in a small, conservative, religious town. Having grown up in a more conservative, religious household, the feeling that God is always watching makes that person filter all their thoughts through that myopic lens, no more terrifyingly than by Saeed’s wife (Forouzan Jamshidnejad) or his son (Mesbah Taleb), justifying their father’s murders. Plus, Rahimi has to deal with the community, which mostly liked Saeed and believes he was acting “righteously” and should be set free. And the powerful clerics also question Rahimi’s “morality” after some rumours about her and her boss make it to Mashhhad. Arezoo has to navigate these new issues operating with two basic principles: trust no man in power, and everyone answers to someone else, though being a woman pushing for justice in this patriarchial society is still an uphill battle, despite copious evidence of Saeed’s wrongdoings. I won’t reveal the ending, but it’s the right note for this film: bleak, cruel, but necessary.
Holy Spider is NOT for the faint of heart. However, it makes itself necessary through sheer, brute force. And thankfully, there are brave crusading women like Azeroo Rahimi or Mahsa Amini putting their lives on the line to push for a better, more equal world despite all of society not wanting them to do so. You know, the real crusaders for humanity.