This Persian-language thriller is based on the real case of a serial killer who murdered 16 sex workers in Masshad circa 2001. Let’s call it Iranian Psycho.
Born in Iran before moving to Denmark via Sweden, writer/director Ali Abbasi swaps the fantasy of Border (a brilliant Swedish flick deserving of greater recognition) for ripped-from-the-headlines realism. Shooting was moved from Iran to Turkey and ultimately to Jordan, following interference by the Iranian government, who condemned the film and threatened any domestic participants.
Even in the West the movie (a co-production between Germany, France, Denmark and Sweden) has proven divisive, as tends to happen when thrillers show the killer’s viewpoint; Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was censored for 17 years, and Peeping Tom practically destroyed Michael Powell’s career. The violent and disturbing Holy Spider joins those ranks, using the murderer’s perspective not purely to shock, but to say something wider about a complicit society.
Abbasi argues that these killings were signed off by officials and underwritten by religion. The same police meant to be catching the so-called Spider Killer (Mehdi Bajestani) prevaricate and intimidate a journalist (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) investigating the murders. Meanwhile the serial killer is heralded a hero by a community who supports his “one-man jihad against vice.” Abbasi’s brute-force approach lacks the subtlety and nuance of Border, but that is surely his point; where is the nuance in the state-sanctioned killing of women?
Bajestani and Ebrahimi give committed performances, though we never learn much about the fictional reporter; perhaps Abbasi thought it not worth dwelling on a made-up character in a true story. As a result it works better as a political statement than a piece of cinema, never amassing the tension of real-life crime thrillers Zodiac or Hounds of Love. Where it has a more psychological impact is in showing the chilling effect on a son (see also The Woman) raised by a misogynist father and an ideology of victim-blaming.
Politically charged and brutally honest, Holy Spider is a tough watch; anything less would be criminal.