Director and co-writer Ali Abassi’s Holy Spider begins in the atmospheric night streets of Massad. Viewers follow a sex worker as she makes her evening rounds; it’s unpleasant, grim, but it all seems to be very normal for her. However, when she picks up another client, she doesn’t know it will be her last. In a death as shocking and sudden as Psycho’s shower scene, the stranger violently strangles her to death in an uncompromising display of violence that goes on long enough to make viewers unsettled by what they’re watching. The killer is Saed (Mehdi Bajestani), a physically imposing construction worker on a holy mission to rid the streets of sin. Meanwhile, an investigative journalist (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) has arrived in Massad to track the murderer down.
While the story is based on a real-life criminal dubbed the “Spider Killer”, who killed 16 sex-workers in what he believed was a holy mission, Abassi’s film is a fictional version of these events. It starts on a strong note, but as the script delves into various different facets surrounding the case and impending investigation (ranging through everything from vignettes of the victims’ lives to Saed’s family life, courtroom procedurals and the killer’s imprisonment), the script becomes bogged down in the finer details, gradually erasing the gritty tone as it drags on.
Bajestani’s performance is what makes this production. His intimidating screen presence is somewhere between No Country for Old Men’s Anton and Jason Vorhees. The serial killer is an unstoppable force of power and destruction, and Bajestani takes the role in his stride. The filmmaker ensures viewers understand the man is an unhinged psychopath, in other moments highlighting how easy and terrifying religious radicalisation can be. Saed is not a sympathetic character, and yet scenes exploring his family life nevertheless add an extra level of intrigue to the killer.
It’s the overly weighty investigative parts of this film that drag it down. Amir-Ebrahimi gives a similarly strong performance as the lead investigator, however these scenes lack the intoxicating atmosphere and visual creativity of when Saed is involved. Despite the filmmaker’s attempts to discuss grand issues of morality and religion, sitting through extended courtroom discussions just isn’t very interesting. Holy Spider continues to progress in this way, a mix between tedium and an atmospheric thriller. Unfortunately, by the time the credits come around, after a prolonged epilogue, there’s not much excitement left for viewers to enjoy.
Holy Spider does not have a UK release date yet.
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Watch a clip for Holy Spider here: