When dramatizing a real serial killer’s reign, we need to think more about the victims and the people who loved them living in the aftermath.
You have never seen a true crime story with the uniqueness of Holy Spider. That’s not to say that the film does things others have never done before. In fact, it shares a lot of the most common qualities of procedurals with typical American fare like Law & Order or NCIS. But where Holy Spider feels different is in its unflinching view of street life in the city of Mashhad, and in showing how that atmosphere fuels a self-righteous killer who feels entitled to play god in the holy city. The film does well to slot itself in the true crime genre, but it plays like a horrific character study that, in a lot of ways, disrespects the real-life victims on which the on-screen crimes were based. Though the film has a lot of great elements at play that come together to give the audience a palpably unsettling trip down the rabbit hole, the way it handles its killer feels like reverence, or at the very least unwaning interest — and though it is important to understand him, Holy Spider seems to nearly glorify him at times, an effect that sours what could’ve been a moving dramatization.
Holy Spider follows Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), a spitfire reporter who has come to the Iranian city of Mashhad, to hunt the spider killer, a man who kills unsuspecting sex workers as part of a personal religious crusade to rid the holy city of tainted women. While the audience is taken along for the ride on her investigation, the film also lets viewers into the murderer’s world as a seemingly normal man, his unexpectedly quaint family life, and lays bare his impulse to kill.
The thing about this film, which is based on true events in Mashhad in 2000, is that it puts you in an inherently conflicted position as the viewer. The way director Ali Abbasi juggles between the procedural unraveling of the mystery from Rahimi’s point of view and the cruel dealings and emotional turmoil of the serial killer is novel and works to humanize the killer, named Saeed, in a way that forces you to see him as the human being that he is. At the same time, Abbasi’s method comes off as sympathetic because his focus makes it a point to consistently remind the audience that Saeed is a beloved family man. Yes, showing that side of him is important commentary on how serial killers camouflage themselves within society, but with the root of these offenses being so misogynistic in nature, the effect favors Saeed and works to minimize his crimes despite their pervasive nature throughout the tone of the film.
Additionally, the movie makes it a point to show Saeed’s sadistic, bigoted murders in all of their garishness, which isn’t in itself a transgression for a filmmaker. Sometimes, it works to see these misdeeds on screen, rather than to allow the audience to draw their own conclusions by leaving things purposefully vague. But in showing these crimes to their fullest and most hateful extent, it doesn’t actually do anything to subvert Saeed’s misogynistic crimes, or even to comment on them in any particularly novel way. We know he made these women suffer because of who they were. This is one place where that type of bold violence does a disservice to the real people who are still shaken and changed by the atrocities this film is based on. Essentially reenacting these sexist abuses only brings pain to those who were affected, and thus doesn’t actually bring anything positive to the legacy of the crime. Showing everything, in this case, isn’t necessary, and it certainly doesn’t improve how this story is told.
There’s no denying that Amir-Ebrahimi, our feminist lead, is incredible in this film. Her Cannes win for this performance was undoubtedly warranted, and she brings a real fierce determination and sharpness to the film’s story that is exciting to watch. But there’s also no denying that in creating this character and putting the film’s central lens on her, Abbasi and his co-writer, Afshin Kamran Bahrami, deny Saeed’s real victims the agency and respect their memories could’ve had — and frankly deserve in general, simply because of the horrific deaths they suffered — through this project.
This becomes another way the film leans into an inherent misogyny that is common in the way men treat the stories of sex workers. Had Abbasi maybe decided to toy with history a bit and given one of Saeed’s victims a second chance, it could’ve had powerful effects for the way the story unfolded in a fictionalized context. That doesn’t mean Rahmini’s character should’ve been scrapped necessarily, but it does mean that the story could have been even better served, as well as the memories of those who lost their lives at the hands of this very real killer, by giving Rahmini’s most courageous and fruitful efforts to one of his victims who would, instead of Rahmini in a moment of journalistic impulse, survive Saeed’s wrath. That change would have been much more meaningful to those who are living in the shadow of this tragedy, as well as a potent plot device that stays away from rehashing the misogynistic tendencies of the crimes we’re focused on.
Alongside Amir-Ebrahimi’s acting, the film has other high points. Medhi Bajestani is magnificent as the killer Saeed, juggling his double life with equal measures of restraint and inner chaos. The film’s score and cinematography aid in crafting the brooding and dark tone of the film, and through those two elements the movie builds a crime procedural with a grittier edge. Abbasi’s directing, along with his and Bahrami’s script, is compelling and interesting to watch, especially in the context of how he frames Tehran and how the movie’s script analyzes the dichotomy of ideologies within Iran and its holiest areas. It is in no way a bad film, not on the surface. But all of its good qualities aren’t enough to conceal its key missteps and how they permeate the entire picture, forcing its audience to endure the cruelest parts of crimes committed at the behest of a hateful bias in a way that never rises above the idea of simply reliving the horrors these women were put through.
Ultimately, Holy Spider pits two types of women against each other, the same thing the titular spider killer himself was doing with his religious executions. It isn’t exactly the kind of message you want to send when fictionalizing brutal and true events that people still live with to this day. In doing this, the movie reinforces that there are upstanding women, like Rahmini and even Saeed’s wife, and women who should be looked at as less than, like Saeed’s victims. In reality, there is no dividing line that deems some women more pure, and thus worthy of basic respect, than others.
When we shed light on tragedies like this one — an abhorrent killing spree that claimed the lives of 16 innocent Iranian women living their lives — we should be focusing on how the misogynistic qualities of a killer allowed him to perpetuate his crimes and rhetoric unchallenged, but without exploiting that fact and maintaining the same level of bias in the way we present the story to the audience. Abassi’s efforts in Holy Spider are admirable. He does an excellent job of creating dark tension and mood as Saeed’s crimes take hold of the city of Tehran. But his tendencies to lean into that darkness can be a misstep in the name of the real victims of the spider killer.
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Lex Briscuso is an entertainment and culture writer, critic, and radio host living in Brooklyn. In addition to writing news and criticism for /Film, she is the head of social media at Dread Central, Dread Presents, and Epic Pictures Group, and contributes criticism at Paste Magazine. You can find her bylines at The Guardian, Fangoria, Vulture, Roger Ebert, EUPHORIA., Dread Central, and Shudder’s The Bite, and her horror and genre radio show, YOUR NICHE IS DEAD, is live Mondays at 5pm ET on independent internet station KPISSFM.