Holy Spider review: a brutal serial killer tale

Holy Spider
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Ali Abassi’s Holy Spider retells the story of Iranian murderer The Spider Killer – but smartly avoids glorifying his actions.

This review contains  light spoilers.

Basing a film on the actions of a real life serial killer is a contentious decision for any filmmaker. Most mass murderers yearn for some kind of notoriety, and what easier way to achieve that than being immortalised in popular culture? By depicting their crimes on screen, said filmmaker is effectively giving them exactly what they want.

It’s a testament to the skills and sensitivities of director Ali Abbasi that his new film Holy Spider manages to largely avoid that trap by turning the story of the Iranian murderer known as the Spider Killer into something much more far-reaching.

The film shifts focus between the characters of a fictionalised journalist named Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) and the killer Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani), a former soldier who targets sex workers in the holy city of Mashhad. Rahimi comes up against numerous obstacles solely because of being a woman, whilst it soon becomes clear that there are many in Mashhad who see Saeed’s actions as admirable, effectively cleaning up the streets of ‘unclean’ prostitutes.

This is where Holy Spider justifies its existence. Early on, the scenes of women being brutally murdered make it seem like Abbasi is – like many others before him – falling into the trap of celebrating a monster. Yet as the story unfolds we see how misogyny has been weaved into the very fabric of an entire society. Saeed is depicted as a broken and pathetic man, but his crimes are practically deified by those who suggest a higher power has a hand in his violent acts.

The two performances from Amir-Ebrahimi and Bajestani are note-perfect, and the way in which Abbasi skilfully blends reality with fantasy ensures that even those familiar with the real life case of the Spider Killer will be questioning where exactly the story will end up. Abbasi even uses that knowledge against the more informed viewer in the film’s latter half, making them question whether he’s willing to offer an alternative history (and ending) for the Spider Killer in order to really make his point.

Ultimately though, he doesn’t have to, and Abbasi makes that most apparent in the film’s most galling moment. It’s one saved for the very last, as Saeed’s son – recorded by Rahimi on a handheld camera – matter-of-factly uses his younger sister to demonstrate how his father committed his gruesome crimes, placing his knee on her throat, rolling her body up in a carpet and even suggesting that he would consider following in his father’s bloody footsteps. And why not? His father is a hero.

The message is clear. A film like Holy Spider doesn’t need to glorify a monster, because society already has.

Holy Spider is in cinemas now.

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