Review: Holy Spider

Death on wheels.


These are difficult times for the mad mullahs of Tehran. There they were last month, quietly going about their business of oppressing the Iranian people, which they've been doing for the past 43 years, when a big kerfuffle broke out over the death of a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini. She had been in the custody of the government morality police when she died, arrested for wearing her hijab headscarf in a manner that was deemed to be not quite right. Witnesses said she was severely beaten; the government denied this, but Amini's father was nevertheless prevented from viewing his dead daughter's body.

Protests, largely led by women, broke out immediately and quickly spread nationwide; soon they were a subject of international celebration. Domestically, more than 200 Iranians were said to have been killed, either shot or clubbed to death by security police. Forty days later, presumably to the regime's alarm, the demonstrations were going even stronger, and there was open speculation that the end might finally be at hand for the hated theocracy.

This was pretty bad PR, especially for a government that was already widely despised. Now, to make things just a little bit worse, a new movie called Holy Spider is being released in the West. It's already won a best actress award for one of its stars, Zar Amir Ebrahimi, at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it deserves a look. Raking over the smoldering embers of a 20-year-old serial-killer case, it's a powerful film, brash and bracing in the manner of a classic B-movie.

The story is set in the "holy city" of Mashhad, in northeastern Iran. There a construction worker named Saeed Hanaei launches a personal jihad against prostitution—specifically, the desperate hookers who line up along the sides of major roads, beckoning to passing autos (or, in the case of Hanaei, motorbikes). The killer has an unvarying technique for dispatching these women: luring them onto his bike with a flash of money or opium, then taking them home to the small apartment he shares with his wife and small children (carefully waiting until the family is absent). Sometimes he has preliminary sex with his victims before strangling them, often with their own hijabs. Afterward, he dumps their bodies wherever, in a tomato field or next to a road. In real life, Hanaei admitted that over the course of 11 months, from 2000 through 2001, he killed 16 women in this way. (Police believed there were more.)

After his arrest, this fervid soldier of God was taken up as a hero by his fellow dwellers in the religious-lunatic community. After all, had he not sought to purify society? Many in the military also approved of his activities, and police may have lent him a hand as well—they were said to have offered one victim's father money if he would publicly forgive his daughter's murderer. With so much popular support, Hanaei hoped to escape punishment. Surprisingly, though, he was found guilty and hanged, in a big, gym-like room in Mashhad prison, in 2002.

Holy Spider is raw and unsentimental, reminiscent in some ways of the gruesome 1986 true crime movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (although it's nowhere near as bloody). Director and cowriter Ali Abbasi has bolstered the story with one invented character, a female investigative journalist named Rahimi (played with bracing bluntness by Ebrahimi), and this was a useful idea—Rahimi's unflagging alertness makes us feel the everyday dangers of life in a brutally misogynistic society. And Abbasi draws an effectively low-key performance from theater veteran Mehdi Bajestani, who plays Hanaei as a man who seems dim, but is quietly very dangerous.

The director doesn't shy away from depicting the murders as sudden, shocking assaults (some might find them hard to watch). But he also brings a subtle chill to scenes in which we see Hanaei's teenage son, Ali (Mesbah Taleb), appearing to begin his own journey down his dead father's path. There's also a shivery conversation between Rahimi and another journalist—one who's actually been contacted by the killer. He says he asked the man—Hanaei—how long he intended to keep killing prostitutes. "As long as it takes," he said.