Holy Spider, 2022.
Directed by Ali Abbasi.
Starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani, Forouzan Jamshidnejad, Sina Parvaneh, Nima Akbarpour, Sara Fazilat, Alice Rahimi, Ali Nazarian, Sima Seyed, Firouz Ageli, Farhad Faghih Habibi, Mesbah Taleb, Ariane Naziri, M. Ali Nazarian, and Majd Eid.
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.
Based on actual events between 2000-2001 and set in the holy city of Mashhad, director Ali Abbasi’s (co-writing alongside Afshin Kamran Bahrami and story supervisor Jonas Wagner) Holy Spider depicts the grisly strangulations of sex workers by former soldier and religious zealot Saeed (a terrifying Mehdi Bajestani not just because of the on-screen violence, but the self-righteousness and conviction in which he carries out his actions while blending into society and family life), who believes his cleansing the streets of impurity.
The premise here could have quickly devolved into tasteless exploitation (especially accounting for the brutality on display), but the script wisely filters the killings and concurrent investigation through the specificity of Iran’s social politics, questionable law enforcement, and some crazed religious beliefs. Holy Spider is in a position where it can give away the Spider Killer’s identity right away because it doesn’t have to be a mystery. The context allows the film to play out as a morally vacuous, upsettingly shocking character study about a monster and how his actions reverberate across Mashhad and influence a continued cycle; the next generation of regressive ideologies and patriarchal abuse. There are horrifying twists and turns along the way that never comes across as a filmmaker playing a twisted game but rather allowing sadistic reality to play out, further outraging viewers with every subsequent reveal.
When Holy Spider is not following Saeed keeping up appearances and avoiding suspicion around his family, reappearing at the scenes of his crimes, taunting a local journalist, or luring financially destitute or drug addict prostitutes back to his abode to become his next victim, fictional journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, playing the role with the required progressive counterbalance attitude toward this community) works together with police officers and unnerved local reporter Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), digging into the details.
It’s also instantly made clear that, except for Sharifi, none of these systems can be trusted as they either don’t care about the impoverished victims (often written off as junkies and sinners) or don’t believe what relatives have to say (who are usually disgusted and in some cases believe that the woman got what she had coming), or would prefer bowing to public opinion that aligns with Saeed’s beliefs.
Rahimi is taking this case seriously and is dedicated to uncovering the killer and putting him behind bars. Unfortunately, there is not much to her as a character (as if the filmmakers weren’t really sure how to shade her since they had nothing from real life to pull from), but the performance is rough and angry with boldness, reflecting the film itself. With that in mind, it’s not necessarily a bad decision that Holy Spider majorly shifts over to Saeed’s in its third act, where the holy city wrestles with his behavior, making one infuriating choice after another.
There is some justice here, but Holy Spider culminates with an unbearably uncomfortable and disturbing final sequence that immediately rips away that optimism. You can call it shock value if you want, but the points feel vital and necessary. Holy Spider is sinister and timely, and there is not enough holy water in the world to douse yourself to feel clean after experiencing it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com