Catching a serial killer is no small feat, so what happens when, instead of becoming the next Ted Bundy or Ed Gein, he’s turned into a full-blown martyr by the public?
That’s the troubling takeaway from Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider, which is based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, a man who murdered 16 prostitutes in the Iranian sacred city of Mashhad in 2000 and 2001, before he was arrested, put on trial and then reclaimed as a national and religious hero who had “cleansed” Iran of its vices.
The Bottom Line
A ruthless serial killer story set in a twisted place.
Abbasi transforms the controversial case into both a violent, catch-the-killer thriller and a critique of his homeland’s punishing theocratical system, where women seem to always be guilty of something, even when they’re the victims of cold-blooded murder.
Like his last feature, the gender-fluid, creature-feature romance Border, which played Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2018, this is a movie that takes a well-worn genre and turns it on its head, dishing out more surprises than expected while delivering a message heard loud and clear about Iran’s current state. It’s far from subtle filmmaking, but Holy Spider is equal parts gripping and disturbing, and not always for the squeamish. Suffice to say it won’t be playing at your favorite Tehran multiplex anytime soon, though it should seal Abbasi’s reputation as a bold new talent.
There was no question of the director ever being able to make his third feature in his native country, so production took place in the Jordanian capital of Ahman. The city substitutes well for Mashhad, Iran’s third largest metropolis and major site of Islamic pilgrimage, with tens of millions visiting each year to worship at the shrine of Iman Reza.
Abassi, who wrote the script with Afshin Kamran Bahrami, is less interested in religious tourism than in Mashhad’s grimy back-alleys and industrial wastelands. This is where Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), a 50-year-old construction worker and loving family man, preyed on prostitutes for a two-year period before the law finally caught up with him.
Holy Spider frames the killer’s story as a twisted game of cat and mouse, cutting between Saeed as he picks up women on his motorcycle, takes them back to an apartment and strangles them to death with their own hijabs; and Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), a reporter from Tehran who arrives in town to cover the story, following Saeed’s trail as he offs more victims, eventually earning himself the nickname of “Spider Killer.”
The film switches from one viewpoint to another to better grasp the contours of a society that marginalizes women — whether journalists like Rahimi or the doped-out, impoverished prostitutes she meets on the street — while men such as Saeed, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who’s both deeply religious and a responsible dad, are models of high standing. This is how the killer is able to convince himself that he’s doing Allah’s work, removing women he sees as traitors to the Islamic status quo.
Abassi keeps us fairly glued to the action, with photography by Nadim Carlsen (Border, Holiday) that favors vibrantly handheld, gritty compositions filled with stark neon light and plenty of shadows. When Saeed pounces upon his victims, we see every dirty detail in widescreen close-up, accompanied by sound design from Lajos Wienkamp-Marques that doesn’t spare any effect as the air is choked out of them.
But there’s a method to the director’s murder-ness: He wants us to feel the crude pain of each death, which better underlines how preposterously Saeed finds favor both with his own family, and a portion of Iran’s public, once he’s arrested. That happens only when Rahimi sets a trap for him that’s all-too easily executed and strains credulity, as do a few other aspects of the plot. This isn’t the brand of understated, layered narrative that Iranian cinema is known for, but rather sensational in-your-face storytelling — backed by a stirring, electric guitar-strumming score from Martin Dirkov — that puts its political agenda right there on the table and asks you to acknowledge it.
“It’s like a bottomless black hole,” is one character’s assessment of life on the other side of the tracks, where junkies and prostitutes, some of them mothers, try to eke out an existence only blocks away from one of Iran’s holiest sites. Whether Saeed was deliberately trying to cleanse that world, as he claims, or took perverse pleasure in slaughtering innocent women — well, not so innocent according to him and many others, including the police officers, prosecutors and judges who decide his fate — is never clear, although by the film’s closing reel his martyr complex has fully taken over.
Meanwhile, Rahimi, who has to constantly face either male chauvinism or aggression, starting when she first checks into her hotel and all the way up to a chilling scene where a cop tries to corner her in her room one night, has to stand by and watch as her manhunt reaches fruition and then implodes in the aftermath. The fact that Saeed may be sentenced to a death is pretty much beside the point by then: In the Iran ruthlessly portrayed by Holy Spider, the killer appears to be less guilty than Rahimi, and all the other women, he gazes upon with a hateful and superior satisfaction.