Holy Spider (2022)

Holy Spider lands at the exact intersection of two genres I’m not especially interested in: the true crime serial killer thriller and the shoe-leather journalism drama.  Its semi-fictional story of real-life confessed, convicted killer Saeed Hanaei’s street-level rivalry with a composite-character journalist determined to bring him to justice is something I was prepared to ignore entirely . . . until I saw who directed it.  Iranian-born, Copenhagen-based filmmaker Ali Abbasi made such choppy waves with his previous film, Border, that I could not ignore whatever he made next, regardless of genre.  Although no less morbid nor extreme, Border is in my genre wheelhouse, since its dark fairy tale setting lands it firmly in the supernatural.  The ripped-from-the-headlines story behind Holy Spider can’t pretend to be as singular as that doomed trolls-in-love horror drama, but it does continue the disturbing brutality of Abbasi’s previous triumph, and likely puts it to more politically ethical use.  No matter how little interest I may have in Holy Spider as a genre piece, it’s so fiercely unflinching & matter of fact in its observations of misogynist violence that I couldn’t help but be chilled by it.  Abbasi is a fiercely effective purveyor of movie violence, often to a deliberately sickening degree.

Time-stamped with 9/11 footage looping on a background television, Holy Spider recounts the serial murders of sex workers in the “holy city” of Mashhad in the early 2000s.  The women are choked to death—often in real-time on camera—with their headscarves by a serial killer posing as a potential john, using a religious symbol as a form of self-righteous punishment.  Maintenance man Saeed Hanaei’s guilt in these crimes is not hidden from the audience.  It’s barely hidden from the fictional journalist who takes him down, as her bare-minimum efforts to sniff him out expose the cruelty of local police’s indifference to the murder spree.  Once caught, Hanaei proudly confesses his guilt, claiming the murders were a “jihad on vice”, calling for a “fatwa on immoral women”.  Public response to his declarations is mostly positive, recalling the NIMBY cruelty towards real-life sex workers’ murders in the avant-garde musical London Road.  It’s a pretty cut and dry story about the free-flowing bleedover of sexual repression into misogynist violence, one that only differs from its Hollywood true-crime equivalents in its cold, matter-of-fact depictions of sex & violence.  Abbasi could be accused of edgelord pranksterism for some of the more shocking moments in Border, but these real-life murders are taken deadly seriously, without a hint of humor or sensational romance.

If Abbasi does anything especially unique with the genre traditions of the serial killer thriller, it’s in the way he continues Hanaei’s story beyond capture & punishment.  Once caught, his rivalry with the feminist journalist determined to take him down continues in full stride, as he tries to weaponize the court of public opinion to justify his murders.  After execution, his misogynist philosophies live on, particularly in the mind & actions of his teenage son, who idolizes his father as a morally righteous superhero.  The typical Hollywood version of this story is pure copaganda, wherein putting Hanaei behind bars is enough to neutralize the threat.  Instead, Abbasi finds deep terror & sadness in the continuation of Hanaei’s misogynist vision on a culture-wide level, continuing his work well after he’s physically neutralized.  It’s a chilling picture, one that has more political & philosophical purpose than most true crime recaps of famous headlines or sensationalized hagiographies of journalists doing their jobs.  As much as I would personally prefer that Abbasi return to the supernatural world in future projects, I still respect what he was able to accomplish while tethered to reality here.  Both Border and Holy Spider feel like grueling ordeals rather than passive entertainment, and attaching that hurt to real-life victims doesn’t make them any easier to endure.

-Brandon Ledet

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