Holy Spider, the third feature directed by Ali Abbasi, is also the third film to focus on Saeed Hanaei, the so-called “Spider Killer,” who murdered sixteen sex workers in the Iranian city of Mashhad between 2000 and 2002. Abbasi approaches this infamous spree from the perspective of a fictional character, journalist Rahimi, played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who travels to Mashhad to try and crack the case. From the moment she arrives, Rahimi is misrecognised for a sex worker, not because she’s doing anything especially alluring, but because she occupies the same anomalous place in Iranian society as a sex worker: a woman on the street alone. When she first checks into her hotel, the receptionists initially turn her away, since she’s unaccompanied by a man, while she tends to be messy around the edges with her appearance as well, so it’s instantly clear she doesn’t have an orthodox man keeping her in check. Her body language, too, is always on the verge of relaxing out of her hijab, as it does whenever she retreats to her room, where she smokes and researches in Western garb.
Conversely, Saeed, who is played here Mehdi Bajestani, sees his serial killing as a religious vocation, a form of social purification that leads him to target sex workers around his local shrine. He wishes he was still fighting in the Iran-Iraq War, where he missed his shot at martyrdom, so he continues the battle on the home front, with a religious war against the women he perceives as the most dissolute in his community. He’s the only character we see actively praising religion (as opposed to just following religious law) with the exception of an Imam that Rahimi visits during the first act. Yet while this Imam distinguishes murder from purification, and violence within the church from violence without, he can’t quite bring himself to condemn Saeed’s religious mission either, setting the stage for the film to come.
Since Saeed’s own mission is basically one of silence and erasure, the film focuses on his modus operandi – strangulation – in quite vivid detail. Once his victims have died, he likes to caress the strangle marks, which tend to occur at the cusp of the hijab. Strangling these women becomes a way of reinstating the hijab – not physically, since they’re all wearing hijab when he picks them up on the street, but symbolically, as if to remind Iranian women as a whole of the orthodox expectations around their submission and acquiescence. As the point of this strangulation is to stop speech (death is almost a byproduct), Abbasi focuses in gruesome detail on the halting sounds of strangulation, the voice box going from an instrument of language to a dying organ, and mirrors it in the staticky textures of the score.
In that sense, Rahimi fits Saeed’s victim profile perfectly. She may not be selling her body, but she takes her body into spaces typically reserved for men (or men with women) in order to enhance her voice as a journalist. This connection between public visibility and verbal autonomy quickly forms a synergy between Rahimi and Saeed. At one point, for example, she buys a drink for a sex worker who turns out to be Saeed’s next victim. That same night, Rahimi is stalked by a shadowy figure as she makes her way down what appears to be a pretty normal sidestreet. Like Saeed, the figure is on a motorcycle, and while we never see his face, it’s clear that Rahimi is now well and truly within his sightlines – a sobering reminder that his serial killing is above all about policing public space, and the way that women navigate public space.
This explains the other major part of Saeed’s modus operandi – his restless motorbike rides through the night city. In part, these help him browse a greater range of victims, and ensure a quick getaway from his various crime scenes. But they also signal his need to command public space itself, through a scopic mobility that is coded as masculine very early on, when Saeed teaches his son to ride, but also instructs him not to tell his mother. No surprise that he buries his victims in some of the highest parts of the city, where he can command a panoramic view that Abbasi mirrors (and makes us somewhat complicit in) during the opening drone shots. As if to mitigate against this complicity, Abbasi spends much of the remainder of the film on tight shots and furtive perspectives that align more directly with Rahimi’s outlook.
With Saeed policing space so thoroughly, and the actual police (both civil and religious) unwilling to help out with the investigation, Rahimi becomes the last bastion of public space, converging the role of sex worker and journalist into a grim determination to walk alone at night. All it takes is a touch of lipstick for her to go from journalist to possible sex worker, ushering in a haunting second act in which she braves the weird void of the Mashhad streetscape, and inevitably enters Saeed on her first trajectory. Poised between the street and his motorcycle, she waits for a fellow journalist to follow in his car, but finds that Saeed’s mobility, and the expansive breadth of his revelatory mission, quickly exceeds him, bringing her dangerously close to the fate of the previous sixteen sex workers that same night. From the moment she meets Saeed, she intuits that he’s the killer, the limit to the spaces she can traverse. Later on, when she reveals she wasn’t a sex worker after all, he blithely retorts that she may as well have been, since she was alone at night, the most defining trait of sex work.
Holy Spider now takes a sharp pivot for its third act, which focuses on Saeed’s trial after Rahimi’s colleague saves her just in time. This may be the most horrific part of the film, as Saeed’s charisma as a serial killer dovetails with orthodox Islam in ways that make it difficult for any governmental or religious figure to categorically condemn him. That process has its epicentre in Saeed’s own home, where his wife explains to his son that “these were all corrupt women – your father took care of them.” Buoyed up by the heroism of being a martyr to his family, Saeed takes control of the court, invoking his “need to cleanse society” so brazenly, and mugging to the crowd so shamelessly, that he becomes a kind of folk hero. In the Iran of the early 00s, this is viral content, as Saeed announces that “I’m crazy – crazy about cleansing the world of corruption,” and promises he won’t cease if he’s ever permitted to be released.
The third act thus speaks to the paradox of sentencing a serial killer in a political system where women aren’t considered citizens in the same way as men. Awful as it is, Saeed’s mission brings him very close to the core of radical Islam, meaning that any trial must inevitably be a show. The first part of this show is sinister enough, as Saeed gets a fake whipping, while Rahimi and the rest of the media hear him gleefully pretending to feel the blows from an adjoining room. Yet the second part of this show is the horrific core of the film, following Saeed as he is led out of his cell for what he expects will be a pardon, into a gallows room, where he is unceremoniously hung. The fact of the capital punishment is confronting in and of itself, but it’s not the kernel of horror here. Rather, Abbasi suggests, even or especially at the moment of execution, punishment is a mere farce or formality, a way of going through the motions without critiquing the system. This is punishment shorn of any moral imperative, execution as empty formalism, so it makes sense Rahimi isn’t allowed to be a witness to it, since her sheer presence might invest it with a meaning that it cannot be permitted to exude.
Instead, the empty formality of this execution leaves Saeed’s message intact to circulate through more informal, less regulated channels, the most terrifying of which is helmed by Saeed’s son himself. In the weeks after the execution, this boy develops a sizeable social media following by uploading a series of videos which take us through Saeed’s routines and rituals, using his younger sister in the role of the victim. He takes particular pride in the strength of Saeed’s strangulation, in the ingenuity with which he concealed his victims in the rugs of their own house, and in the sheer efficiency of his serial killing: “He was able to deal with a corrupt woman in only two hours.” In all these demonstrations, his sister plays the role of the victims, as the misogynistic violence and family values that together determined Saeed’s life finally come together in one final tableau, explaining to us beyond a doubt how Saeed’s wife could support his actions, much as Saeed’s daughter is already being inculcated into them. And that is the last note of the film – the promise, the assurance, the confidence, that Saeed’s actions will continue, both through the many acolytes that have emerged to volunteer their services, but mainly through the orthodox family structure that, in Abbasi’s sobering vision, breeds serial killing as its logical extremity, its ultimate ideological horizon.