Holy Spider Review: A Disturbing Glimpse At An Iranian Serial Killer [Cannes]

I'll cut to the chase ' "Holy Spider" is a tough watch. Not because it's a bad film ... far from it. Director Ali Abbasi has created a rich, effective thriller that shudders with dramatic tension. It's difficult to watch because it grabs you by the throat, forcing you to confront brutal, bloody violence against women.

The camera rarely cuts away, leaving you little choice but to face the violence head-on. And that's the whole point. Based on the real-life serial killer Saeed Hanaei, "Holy Spider" is a brutally effective thriller set within the holy city of Mashhad. A family man and devoted father, the version of Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) we see on screen is a builder, a pillar of the community, and happens to have brutally murdered 16 prostitutes across the city.

We're almost instantly given his reasoning — it's a holy war, a jihad against the supposed vile women who desecrate the holy city. But from the film's harrowing first scenes we're confronted with an uncomfortable truth — these women aren't the monsters he makes out. The smudge of lipstick, the bruises and scars of old beatings, and the degrading pillow talk of customers taking things too far paint a horrific picture.

"Holy Spider" is as much about attitudes towards women and sex work as it is about a serial killer.

Along came a Spider

The first ten minutes of "Holy Spider" paints a grim picture of Iranian sex work.

We're introduced to Somayeh (Alice Rahimi), one of the Spider Killer's victims, and watch through our fingers as she begins a grueling night's work. A grim close-up of oral sex from the passenger seat of a car is interrupted as a police car drives by. It's "Holy Spider" at its bleakest, and as the rest of Somayeh's night unfolds, we're reminded of the harsh predicament she's in.

A single mother, she's doing what she can to get by. Even if that means facing violence and castigation every single day. Of course, her story isn't the only one but it's the first we encounter ... and it's not long before the Spider Killer has her in his web. That life-ending moment is as brutal and vicious as you can imagine. Abbasi shows us every moment in grim, unforgiving detail as Saeed strangles his victim, and it's not a quick kill, either. Watching her struggle over several, distressing minutes is a slow-motion gut punch.

But you have to admire the ferocity of Abbasi's filmmaking. He never steps away at the crucial moment, and instead forces us to face the horrible reality of what the killer does to his victims. There's an unabashed truth in these relentlessly grim shots that we as a society must face. And Abbasi never backs down.

To catch a Spider

One of the more disturbing aspects of "Holy Spider" is the killer's relative normality.

At home, he's a loving husband to his wife, Fatima (Forouzan Jamshidnejad), and a doting dad to two children. He works, he plays with his kids, and he visits the in-laws for dinner. He's exactly the kind of man who would never be linked with the ruthless homicide of 16 women.

That is until a journalist from Tehran shows up. Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) arrives on a bus, and she's hot on the heels of the Spider Killer. But even she, a respectable journalist, is subject to the demands of men, as we see straight from the off. She's almost denied a hotel room because she doesn't have a husband, until she reveals she's a journalist. Even her dealings with the local police chief quickly take an unsavory turn.

Again, it's a commentary on the attitudes towards women — even a headstrong professional is treated no better. And the lines are blurred even further when Rahimi sets her trap, becoming a prostitute for an evening to catch the killer.

Entering the Spider's web

"Holy Spider" is most effective when it's up close and personal, with shaky hand-cam footage creating a terrifying realism that can't be escaped. Dimly lit streets and grimy bedrooms are only a smash-cut away, and with a vibrant electronic score that reverberates through every scene, it paints a "Blade Runner"-style picture of the holy city.

The scuffed realism is punctuated by scenes that would sit well in any horror movie — shots of Saeed laughing maniacally, lit from below, are reminiscent of early slashers. His holy crusade is purposefully framed to be as horrific as possible. These moments keep us on edge, heightening the tension as if it weren't tense enough.

And while Rahimi tracks and faces the Spider Killer, Abbasi expertly assembles a film that veers through police procedural, into horror, and back out the other side. Saeed is an ordinary man doing horrific things. It's his ordinariness that makes this all the more shocking. But that's not where the real terror lies...

The greatest horror in "Holy Spider" comes not from Saeed, but from a system of female oppression that enables men like Saeed to get away with it. Whether it's a lecherous police chief, a serial killer, or a forceful punter, the men in "Holy Spider" are largely complicit. "Holy Spider" shines a light into the murky corners of a society that emboldens its aggressors. In that sense, the film is essential viewing. Even if it is completely devastating.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10

"Holy Spider" premiered as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022.