‘Spider’ Bite

Iran-set serial-killer drama ‘Holy Spider’ transcends its procedural premise and gets under your skin

To an audience well numbed to the problematic portrayal of serial killers (Dahmer and Black Bird, to name just two of late), Holy Spider at first goes over like a grimy trudge across familiar ground. In the Iranian town of Mashhad, a killer of prostitutes named Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) claims more than a dozen lives by the film’s start and continues to stalk sex workers while hiding his deeds from his loving family.

In Saeed’s religiously twisted mind, his murders cleanse the streets of depravity for Allah. But in his moments of shameful pleasure as he commits his acts of strangulation, which the film shows explicitly and with no tasteful cutaways, it’s clear Saeed has succumbed to his own sinful impulses. As he loses control, Saeed’s crimes get increasingly sloppy.

HOLY SPIDER ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Ali Abbasi
Written by: Ali Abbasi, Afshin Kamran Bahrami
Starring: Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani
Running time: 117 min

The town of Masshad, however, fails to solve the mystery of the killer. The police are ineffective in conducting a real investigation, and it’s only with the arrival of a female journalist named Rahimi that Saeed’s double life unravels. Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), who the cops sexually harass and double-guess at every turn, interviews enough women in Masshad to begin to piece together the killer’s identity, and ultimately puts herself in direct danger to solve the crimes with an urgency law enforcement lacks.

If this was all Holy Spider was, an ugly, dispiriting serial-killer procedural, it wouldn’t rise above the glut of true-crime dramatizations all over streaming TV. But it’s after they find out Saeed that the film changes tone and tact, becoming a much smarter, less lurid exposé. Holy Spider is a fictionalized version of a real-life spree of killings in Iran that culminated in 16 murders. It’s been a documentary and the subject of other fictional treatments. But in the hands of filmmaker Ali Abbasi, the second half of this version develops into an extraordinary social commentary. Grotesquely, and as it happened in real life, the serial killer Saeed starts to gain popularity as a kind of avenging folk hero for his crimes.

As Rahimi watches in horror, the judicial system, the public, and even Saeed’s own traumatized family begin to rally around the criminal. The attention emboldens him, even as his mind starts to break down with delusions of salvation.

Holy Spider’s gut punch of an ending drives the film’s themes home; even though Saeed comes to justice, the poison that crimes leave behind still remain.

The film boasts excellent performances and filmmaking. Holy Spider this year earned Ebrahimi a Best Actress award as the Cannes Film Festival and director Abbasi a directing prize at Fantastic Fest.

Holy Spider is a tough, but important watch. This searing screed rails not only against the immediate misogynistic danger of religious fundamentalism, but, especially in its final moments, about how that subjugation of women infects each subsequent generation.

Holy Spider

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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