Back in 2001, Iranian construction worker Saeed Hanaei was arrested for the murder of 16 sex workers in the northern city of Mashad. The press had labelled him the “Spider Killer” and, as his trial progressed, he increasingly became a hero among the religious right because of his claim to be on a mission to free the city from prostitution.
Holy Spider is a fictionalised version of events – the initial murders, the eventual uncovering of the killer, his trial and its aftermath – seen primarily through the eyes of investigative journalist Rahimi (Zar Emir-Ebrahimi) who arrives from Tehran aiming to crack the case. She believes the police have been sloppy in their efforts to catch the killer and it’s her motives for taking on the story, together with the prevailing attitudes towards women, that make Ali Abbasi’s latest film richer and more compelling than just a straightforward police procedural.
Misogyny is rife at every level of both Iranian society and portrayed throughout the narrative. Women are treated with contempt, often described as whores and pressurised to stay at home, raise children and satisfy their husband’s every whim. Stepping out at night is dangerous: any woman on the streets at night is immediately assumed to be a prostitute and treated accordingly, whether they are or not. The actual sex workers, who are conspicuous by their clumsy, garish make-up, are regarded as the lowest of the low, so the police and society as a whole don’t bat an eyelid at their brutal demise. Rahimi, however, refuses to know her place – something she’s frequently told to do – and eventually takes the drastic move of going out on the streets in search of the killer. And she never stops looking over her shoulder.
Despite a flavour, atmosphere and gloom that echoes David Fincher’s Zodiac, the film still very much stands on its own, placing a searching spotlight on misogyny, corruption and a killer who is so ordinary you wouldn’t give him a second glance. He rides around on a moped, a family man with a young wife and a son who worships the ground he works on – yet he kills his victims in the family apartment. His methods are always the same – strangulation – and we’re spared very little in the way of detail. It seems only fair that, when justice comes to Hanaei (Medhi Bajestani), nothing is left to our imagination.
Emir-Ebrahimi won Best Actress at last year’s Cannes for playing the haunted yet determined journalist and the film is Denmark’s entry in the Best International Film category at this year’s Oscars. It has its weaknesses, especially when it comes to the journalist’s eventual confrontation with the killer, but the all-pervasive threat of abuse, at the very least, is disturbingly effective and the end result is a gripping thriller with a thought-provoking edge. It may not quite cut it as a classic of its type, but it pulls no punches when it comes to opening our eyes to attitudes we know to be wrong, making us question just how far beneath the surface they still linger.
Thriller | UK cinemas from 20 January 2023, MUBI from 10 March 2023 | MUBI | Cert: 18 | Dir. Ali Abbasi | Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Medhi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani, Sina Parvenah.