Directed by Ali Abbasi | Written by Abbasi and Afshin Kamran Bahrami | 116 min | ▲▲▲▲△
An earlier version of this review was posted from the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022.
Holy Spider is a pitch-black serial killer thriller from the Swedish-Iranian director of 2018’s fantasy love story, Border. This is a big shift tonally from his last picture, and while it delivers plenty of suspense it shares concerns with many examples of recent message-driven Iranian cinema — whether the film is made within Iran or not, this one was shot in Jordan. It’s about the lack of freedom people live with on a day to day basis, especially women.
Based on a true story, it focusses on Saaed (Mehdi Bajestani), a deeply religious man, war vet, husband and father in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad. He’s frustrated by his god’s message for him, upset that he didn’t become a martyr in the Iran-Iraq war like some others. In the evenings while his wife and kids are out visiting her parents he takes sex workers home and strangles them, dumping their bodies in empty lots outside the city.
With the numbers of women found dead in the double digits, a crusading journalist, Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) arrives in town to report on the case. Though she has a local colleague for support, she doesn’t get much help from the area police or justice system. The fact she’s a woman seems like a serious impediment in this deeply regressive city. She decides to take things into her own hands, even if it means she’ll have to offer herself up as bait to the killer.
While the film isn’t perfect — I had questions about some plot and character points left dangling — it packs a serious emotional wallop. It’s the flip side to the films we’ve seen recently like Promising Young Woman, Compulsus, and Women Talking, where here we spend much of our time with the man hatching and dispatching his violent plans rather than the women who’ve been hurt by them. The grim reality of this scenario really hits when the Iranian justice system steps in and we see the support the killer receives from a public convinced of his mission to cleanse the streets of “corrupt women,” while entirely ignoring the fact that it’s men who pay for their services.
I wouldn’t call this a horror movie, but you can really feel the DNA here from George Sluizer’s The Vanishing, which also dedicates its running time to a killer’s chilling methodology.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves that this is a story specific to a society half way across the planet swaddled in misogyny and religion — in many ways its tale is entirely familiar. If you substitute indigenous women and girls for sex workers, how different is this story from what’s been happening for generations in Canada? How many years has it taken for something to be done to address the fact rando men are abusing, assaulting, and murdering women who are amongst our society’s most vulnerable?
For months now we’ve been hearing about protests across Iran, the people frustrated with government overreach and lack of freedoms. This film has a lot of things to say about that country, but it also has a message to us about ours.