Abbasi’s disquieting based-on-a-true-story work about an unorthodox serial killer who ‘takes care’ of prostitutes in the name of religion is as dark as they come, set in the most unexpected of locations—the holy Iranian city of Mashhad.
Cast: Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, Mehdi Bajestani, Arash Ashtiani
Plot: A journalist descends into the dark underbelly of the Iranian holy city of Mashhad as she investigates the serial killings of sex workers by the so-called “Spider Killer”, who believes he is cleansing the streets of sinners.
Awards: Won Best Actress & Nom. for Palme d’Or (Cannes)
International Sales: Wild Bunch
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing – Serial Killer; Religion & Politics
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
I first heard of Ali Abbasi through his sophomore feature, Border (2018), one of the European discoveries of that year.
As an Iranian who emigrated to Sweden in his earlier years, and currently living in Denmark, his films hardly share the sensibility and spirit of his Iranian contemporaries. His latest, Holy Spider, continues his fascination with dark, unsettling subject matter.
Based on the true story of an Iranian serial killer who murdered more than a dozen prostitutes in the name of religion in the early 2000s, Abbasi’s film takes on the perspective of both the unorthodox killer (who’s a loving husband and father) and a headstrong female journalist (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi in a Cannes Best Actress performance) who is keen to do one better than the inept police force—to find the killer even if it means putting her life on the line.
“We aren’t spreading fear in the society. People are already afraid.”
Like Tarik Saleh’s Cannes Best Screenplay winner, Boy from Heaven (2022), which centers on political and religious corruption in Egypt (but shot safely in Turkey), Holy Spider also deals with the unsavoury aspects of the Middle East, bringing us deep into the holy Iranian city of Mashhad (safely shot in Jordan), where sex workers discreetly work their charm on men.
And this is what makes it interesting—the idea of a crime-thriller operating in the most unexpected of locations.
Abbasi sets the mood up pretty well for the most part—some of the best uses of music come most menacingly in the unsettling night scenes, as the killer scouts for his next victim on a motorcycle.
With Holy Spider also dealing with the perceived ‘inherent goodness’ of the killer’s actions, it becomes far more morally provocative than your run-of-the-mill genre picture.