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film review

Rahimi, played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, in Holy Spider.Courtesy of Sphere Films

  • Holy Spider
  • Directed by Ali Abbasi
  • Written by Ali Abbasi and Afshin Kamran Bahrami
  • Starring Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani and Arash Ashtiani
  • Classification R; 116 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Nov. 18

There are several ways to make a serial killer movie, and in the sometimes compelling and sometimes repellent Holy Spider, filmmaker Ali Abbasi has chosen all of them. At once exploitative and contemplative, thrilling and disgusting, the film makes a bloody mess of itself before coming close to solving its own case.

Based on the true story of serial killer Saeed Hanaei, a devoted family man in Mashhad, Iran, who killed 16 women (many of them sex workers) in the early aughts and then attempted a criminal defence that painted him as a hero who cleansed the streets of immorality, Abbasi’s film very badly wants to be seen as a fiery takedown of the misogyny that rules Iran. But the filmmaker, who was born in Tehran and is now based in Copenhagen, doesn’t seem to know how to do so without also indulging in the same kind of titillating ugliness that he is convinced he is rallying against. In Holy Spider, the road to good intentions is paved by a whole lot of dead women.

While the film is split between two perspectives – the murderous actions of Saeed (Mehdi Bakestani), and the investigation into his crimes by the crusading journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) – Abbasi is clearly more fascinated with the lurid antics of his story’s killer. But what might have been an opportunity to undertake a scalpel-precise autopsy of Iran’s patriarchy is swapped in favour of the hacking of a rusty butcher’s knife to a handful of true-crime movie clichés. We don’t learn much about Saeed other than he’s quiet and frustrated, but do get to see him kill one helpless woman after another, with a particularly throat-gurgling sound-mix attention paid to his preferred method of execution (strangulation).

One or two killings might get the point across, but Holy Spider – while slick and wise to the most effective serial-killer pressure points of genre master David Fincher – is not a movie built for subtlety, introspection or thematic complexity. Even Rahimi’s story points toward the obvious, with her character, an entirely fictional creation, not only intent on reporting on the societal ills of Iran but also a victim of them herself. When she ends up walking into the spider’s lair herself, Abbasi’s film tips over into total hokum.

Holy Spider is based on Iranian construction worker Saeed Hanaei, nicknamed 'Spider Killer' in the press.Courtesy of Sphere Films

The film’s second half, focusing not on the forensic details of the murders but the cultural reaction to them, gets close to what I think, or perhaps hope, Abassi is actually interested in exploring. But the discussion here, too, is so blunt that the movie only ends up condemning its own poky method of filmmaking. The disappointment is all the more crushing once you realize that Abbasi is just a few years removed from making one of the more imaginative films of recent years, the folk-horror love story Border, from 2018.

I will give Abbasi’s new film one point: it ends on a narrative gag as cruel and cold as Saeed’s initial killing spree. For one moment, Holy Spider reaches a place where conception and execution meet in perfect, brutal harmony.