In 2000, real-life builder and war veteran Saeed Hanaei began a year-long killing spree in Iran’s holy city of Mashhad. He scoured the city by night on a motorbike, hunting for sex workers in a kind of Travis Bickle-esque quest to cleanse the streets of ‘vice’. A religious nut, he believed he had righteousness on his side and the tacit support of Islamic clerks.
Surprisingly, the greatest horror that lies in the heart of Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi’s suffocating, often graphic serial-killer procedural about him and the dogged, partly fictionalised female reporter, Rahimi, who hunted him down, isn’t even found in the killings themselves – unblinkingly depicted and gruelling to sit through as they absolutely are.
Instead, and almost uniquely in this bloody and well-worn genre, it’s the wider reaction to the murders that truly shocks. They are celebrated. Hanaei is hailed in the streets as a kind of folk hero. Police and clerks alike contort themselves to find ways to first overlook and then excuse the crimes. His young son’s respect for him skyrockets.
Barring its gripping opening scene, Holy Spider doesn’t take the Seven approach of masking the killer’s identity. Abbasi wants us to know exactly who he is: a family man who is rotting from the inside; a moral vacuum given a perverse authority by the Islamic clerics who preach vehemently against the sex workers and drug addicts he targets without stopping to consider what drove them onto the streets in the first place. It’s surely significant that his first victim is covered in bruises long before Hanaei gets hold of her.
The greatest horror in this suffocating, graphic serial-killer isn’t even the murders themselves
Hanaei is played by Mehdi Bajestani as a man of the most bovine cunning who, in a functioning society, would have been caught almost immediately. Zar Amir-Ebrahimi is terrific as the daring but disillusioned journo who encounters sexism, obstruction and menace in every corner of this bleakly patriarchal world. She arrives in Mashhad in ‘disgrace’ after being sexually harrassed at work, a fake tag exploited at every turned by the male officials of the town.
Abbasi offered a brilliantly leftfield perspective on immigration and otherness with his 2018 debut Border, and his follow-up takes no prisoners in his critique of Iranian society’s built-in misogyny and fake piety. Needless to say, he didn’t film Holy Spider in Iran itself. The film was shot on location in Jordan with a cast of exiled Iranian actors (in a grim life-imitating-art twist, Amir-Ebrahimi had to leave her homeland when she fell victim to revenge porn), and there’s definitely no holds barred here or anyone looking over his shoulder. The final scene, an admiring recreation of Hanaei’s crimes from the most depressing source imaginable, is truly haunting.
In UK cinemas Jan 20, 2023.