HOLY SPIDER is a film that is frightening on a deep and dark level. There are a lot of serial killer movies out there, but HOLY SPIDER is not only different in setting but also in tone. Many serial killer films indulge in a certain glorification of the killer, as highly intelligent, brutal, or seemingly unbeatable. The killer in HOLY SPIDER is someone who is quite ordinary and the film tells the story of the killer and the journalist hunting him at the same time, so there’s not much mystery about who the killer is. The journalist is fictional, but the killer is real.
The setting for the film is the holy city of Mashhad in Iran. The director Ali Abbasi is Iranian and emigrated to Sweden and settled in Denmark. There is a sense of reality to the film, even though we know that the female journalist character is fictional, the actor who plays her, Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, gives an excellent performance as Rahimi. Indeed, she won the award for best actress at The Cannes Film Festival. You can feel her frustration and the danger all around her. For her, the danger is everywhere and it is difficult to know who to trust. It’s a truly terrifying film that shows that women’s lives are quite often real-life horror movies.
Ali Abbasi, co-writer and director of the film, and co-writer Afshin Kamran Bahrami have done a great job of making it seem so real and it is that reality that makes this film as gripping as it is. While watching it, the woman sitting next to me had to comfort me because of one of the most frightening scenes, and I did the same for her when another scene upset her. But overall, the feeling that comes from HOLY SPIDER to women is anger.
The film has even more impact now that the protests are happening in Iran over the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini who was in the custody of Iran’s Morality Police aka Gasht-e Ershad (Guidance Patrols), whose chief function seems to be to harass and arrest women for not wearing the required hijab, formless, loose-fitting clothing with long sleeves, and covering their hair completely. While I was watching the film at Fantastic Fest, the protests were happening. To date, 215 people have been killed during the protests and the protests have even taken place in holy cities like Mashhad and Qom and hundreds of women have been detained and tortured by the authorities. Over a thousand people have been arrested and forty journalists have been detained. [At the time of writing this review], a man was shot to death for removing a poster. But amid this deadly crackdown, the morality police have disappeared.
The film alternates from dark roads where Mashhad’s sex workers look for work, the bland inner world of the rooms where the two sets of characters interact with each other and a blunted daytime outdoors that seems to be set on Mars. All three seem menacing. Even the hotel room where Rahimi stays seems cold as does the home of the killer Saeed. What you might normally think of as warmth does not exist here. There is nothing but emptiness and a chill.
Some horror films are very beautiful, but what’s most disturbing about HOLY SPIDER is just how ordinary everything about it is. How dull the killer is. How commonplace the oppression of women is and how ordinary it is, in this entirely different culture that pretends it is protecting women, that women are being exploited and not just in the streets. Sex workers are frequently the chosen prey of serial murderers because their profession is so dangerous. It’s work where people expect to be able to abuse the workers openly without being punished. It’s been the same since Whitehall.
But in HOLY SPIDER, any woman who works is in that same and dangerous position. That’s what makes it so terrifying. If you are a woman and you have a job, you are prey. But behaving only gives you the illusion of safety, because any time you step out of that role, you are subject to judgment and punishment. In a way, HOLY SPIDER points out that this kind of system isn’t just in Iran and that is perhaps the scariest thing of all. It brings home that the danger lies in being a woman which is something that you cannot fundamentally change. The insinuation that the killer might have the approval and cooperation of the authorities freezes the blood even more but surprises no one.
“He only goes after corrupt women,” and “Know your place.”
The chill breeze wafting through HOLY SPIDER seems to whisper that all women are corrupt given the right (or wrong) circumstance. That there is only a slender thread of respectability that protects us from violence and our punishment. It’s just a matter of time until we step over that line and become prey.
The true terror of HOLY SPIDER is that none of us are safe. In a patriarchal society, it is our fate to wait trembling for our ultimate punishment for the crime of being who we are. The hope is the rage simmering quietly within Rahimi that one day things will change.
HOLY SPIDER is now playing in select theaters.