The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - HOLY SPIDER | The Movie Waffler


A journalist faces misogynistic bureaucracy in her attempt to snare a serial killer.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ali Abbasi

Starring: Zar Amir Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani, Forouzan Jamshidnejad, Alice Rahimi

Holy Spider poster

Ali Abbasi's Holy Spider features a female journalist who poses as a sex worker in order to trap a serial killer. It's a conceit plucked from a hundred 1980s straight to video thrillers, and a fictional insert in what is otherwise largely based on the real life case of the "Spider Killer," Saeed Hanaei, who murdered at least 16 prostitutes in the Iranian city of Mashood between 2000 and 2001. When the film's heroine, Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi), takes to a street corner for a showdown with the killer, played by Mehdi Bajestani, it shatters much of the verisimilitude of what has up to that point been a nuanced and realistic portrayal of the hunt for a maniac.

Holy Spider review

Claiming to be on a mission from a higher power to rid the streets of ladies of low repute, Hanaei found himself held up as a hero by many sections of Iranian society, both during his killing spree and after his arrest. Pitting the real-life killer against a fictional female protagonist, Abbasi uses the case to explore the religious-fuelled misogyny of his birth country.

Rahimi is a feisty heroine who at times comes off as though she's been created to appeal to a western audience rather than represent a realistic depiction of how an Iranian woman might behave in her situation. With a backstory of having lost a previous job for refusing to sleep with her editor, Rahimi arrives from Tehran in Mashood and immediately faces misogynistic obstacles. Her hotel initially refuses to rent a room to a single female. A police officer tries to trade information for sexual favours. A cleric is unwilling to work with a woman he considers of low moral standing. Working with Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), a local detective who has been regularly contacted, Zodiac style, by Hanaei, Rahimi sets about finding the killer.

Holy Spider review

That's just half the story however. Abbasi devotes roughly half his film's running time to detailing not just Hanaei's evil exploits, but his day to day life. While we're left in no doubt that he committed monstrous acts, Abbasi refuses to paint his villain as a cartoon monster. While never excusing Hanaei, Abbasi suggests he's something of a victim himself, suffering from PTSD from the Iran-Iraq war, which has led to him feeling tortured over coming home alive while so many of his friends were killed. Having missed his chance to become a martyr during the conflict, Hanaei feels he can please his god by killing sex workers, whom he considers as human as the average person might consider an insect. In what is presumably another fictional addition, Hanaei visits his crime scenes while under investigation, listening in to men - and shockingly, women – speak of him in heroic terms, even brushing past Rahimi at one point. Ebrahimi plays the part with a quiet sensitivity, not too dissimilar to Tom Noonan's portrayal of the killer in Michael Mann's Manhunter.

Holy Spider review

On the surface Holy Spider appears like a product of Iranian cinema, but its sexual frankness and upfront addressing of misogyny marks it as the work of a filmmaker who is now looking at his country from the outside. Unable to shoot in Iran, Abbasi filmed in Jordan, but with most of the action taking place in cramped rooms and poorly lit nighttime city streets, only those familiar with the city of Mashood will question its accuracy. Small details of Iranian life are utilised to make larger points, like how the female victims are strangled to death with the very headscarves they're forced to wear by their patriarchal society. Abbasi might be accused of being a little on-the-nose with some of his visual metaphors, like how Henaei hides a freshly slaughtered victim in a rug when his wife unexpectedly arrives home early. For all the talk of how the killer and Iranian society fails to view sex workers as real people, the film never really presents them as anything more than victims, introducing each victim minutes before their untimely demise in the manner of a slasher movie. Rather than creating a fictional heroine, we're left to wonder why the writer/director didn't focus his attention on memorialising one of the real life women who lost their lives at the hands of Hanaei.

Holy Spider is on MUBI UK now.

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