Five years on from his neo-Scandi fairytale Border, Ali Abbasi returns with a noirish serial killer thriller. As we have come to expect from the Iranian-born director, Holy Spider combines genre thrills with social commentary, though its balance isn’t quite as finely tuned as much of his previous work.
Based on the brutal murders committed by Saeed Hanaei between 2000 and 2001, Holy Spider follows a male killer as he targets sex workers on the streets of the Iranian city of Mashhad, strangling them in his apartment before dumping them in the same place. As the police fail to turn up any leads, the killings continue and the media dubs him ‘The Spider Killer’. Early on, the film reveals his identity – Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) – a construction worker with a wife and children.
While the police do next to nothing to stop Saeed’s rampage, journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi) arrives to pick up the slack, brushing off assumptions about her character by hoteliers to ask difficult questions of the police investigation. Formally, Holy Spider takes its cues from the David Fincher-end of neo-noir and there is little here that particularly challenges those tropes. But it’s hard to care when Amir-Ebrahimi – whose ferrous intensity centres the film – fixes her stare and exposes the incompetence of yet police officer. The trope of a single-minded journalist fighting for the truth is just that, but in genre fiction the difference between cliché and convention are often matters of taste.
Abbasi’s regular cinematographer, Nadim Carlsen, infuses his frames with lurid blues, reds and yellows, recalling the exploitation of Italian cinema. Indeed, the shifting perspective between Rahimi and Saeed, which lurches from the realist to the psychological, occasionally pulls away from its comfort zone of Fincher into Argento-esque giallo. Meanwhile, Martin Dirkov’s driving score combine with Carlsen’s night time sequences to make Mashhad look like Michael Mann’s LA; Holy Spider is truly an arachnoid of formal and narrative choices, dizzying, exploitative, often thrilling though not always cohesive.
Holy Spider’s social commentary is tightly woven into its plotting, though is perhaps less intricate or substantial than perhaps the film itself thinks. The nature of the killings – Saeed is a bumbling fool, getting away with his crimes for so long only due to the jaw-dropping indifference of the police – are such that society’s acceptance of and complicity in the murder of women is very clearly the point from early on. Nevertheless, it is a powerful and ghoulishly important point to make.
Where, perhaps, the film comes undone is its attempts to balance the extremely serious subject matter with the genre thrills it more adeptly harnesses. There is little psychological depth to Saeed, while we are afforded little insight into how far his campaign of violence against women is motivated by religious zeal, psychosexual disorder or a mixture of the two. Indeed, while a coda involving his son is certainly chilling, its insistence on stating explicitly the already clear subtext of the film unnecessarily pushes the film into triteness.
Still, as a neo-noir Holy Spider offers a tightly-woven procedural crime thriller, bolstered by a superb central performance from Amir-Ebrahimi and gorgeous, lurid aesthetics. A steadier hand marshalling its themes and a more disciplined third act might have tipped Abbasi’s third feature into being something truly special: as it stands we are left a very solid, smart and satisfying thriller.