The Iran depicted in Ali Abbasi’s “Holy Spider” is one rarely seen in film, yet it’s based on real events that took place twenty years ago.  A serial killer is on the loose in the holy city of Mashad.  Over a dozen prostitutes have been murdered and the police have no leads. That strikes investigative journalist Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) as odd, so she travels from Tehran to write about the killings but ends up as the next possible victim.  Shot in Jordan to circumvent censorship laws, the film’s explicit sex and brutality standout, less Paul Schrader, more  John McNaughton, making this a tough watch.  Still, this fictionalized account of a true story is a first-rate thriller that can hold its own alongside David Fincher’s “Se7en” or “Zodiac.”

As the women in Iran continue to fight for their rights with massive protests spurred by the death of Mahsa Amini, it’s easy to believe the story written by director Ali Abbasi and cowriter Afshin Kamran Bahrami, even with the fictionalized Hollywood makeover.  It’s true, 16 women were killed by building contractor Saeed Hanaei (played in the film by Mehdi Bajestani) before the police finally apprehended the serial killer who lured prostitutes into his home like a spider luring flies into a web, hence the nickname “spider killer.”  Why did it take so long to capture him?  The film suggests a disturbing scenario, that unfortunately is conceivable.

Watching “Holy Spider” may recall “Silence of the Lambs” as Rahimi (Amir Ebrah) begins investigating the murders in Mashhad, the second largest holy city in the world, attracting 20 million tourists each year. The word on the street is the spider killer is helping “cleanse” the sacred city of sinners, in this case, prostitutes, as part of his personal jihad against the sex workers.  Unlike Clarice Starling, she isn’t getting any assistance from a Hannibal-type character, however, she is assisted by a local reporter named Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani) who is in contact with the serial killer.  Saeed occasionally calls the reporter let him know the location of the bodies.  The conversations are recorded yet they seem of no interest to the police.

The officer in charge of the case Rostami (Sina Parvaneh) is more interested in helping Rahimi if she agrees to meet him later in less formal surroundings.  Her worried look speaks volumes, as the pervasive misogyny attached to the Iranian culture once again rears its ugly head.  There is a scene in the film that shows what Rahimi, a liberal woman who doesn’t cover her face, wears makeup, and smokes, is up against when she tries to get a hotel room after arriving in Mashad.  The clerk asks “Is this room for yourself?  She confirms, and he responds, “For you alone?”  He then confers with his boss about her being unmarried and not surprisingly he returns to tell Rahimi that they have no vacancies.

In a larger context, Abbasi is using “Holy Spider” to put the culture he grew up in on blast.  When the film isn’t focused on Saeed committing the brutal murders — be warned, the scenes are graphic and realistic as he strangles each victim — the spotlight is on the hurdles Rahimi must jump to function in society. 

When Saeed is finally caught, he claims he was killing the prostitutes, many of them drug addicts, in the name of Allah.  His defense of performing the murders to cleanse the spiritual city of sinners is in question as he often has sex with his victims before the crime.  In other scenes, Saeed is a devout husband and father, so if he really believes in his head that he is performing spiritual work, why would he have sex with the women, and why would he bring them to his family’s home?  Still, a conservative portion of the public and the Iranian media hailed Saeed as a hero, as did his family and teenage son.

Maziar Bahari’s 2002 documentary “And Along Came a Spider” features interviews with Saeed who cites the Koran to justify his crimes.  He doesn’t come across as a monster, but as a disturbed individual who refused to be labeled a “killer,” instead, he chose the term “anti-street women activist.” 

Rather than dish out another documentary, Abbasi tells the spider killer’s story by crafting a compelling thriller, giving it an Americanized makeover by creating a fictional character (Rahimi) who confronts the culture’s embedded misogyny while becoming bait to help catch the psychopath who roams the streets of Mashad on a motorbike, armed with opium and cash to lure his victims.  Zar Amir-Ebrahimi’s superb performance earned her the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival. 

“Holy Spider” is a compelling thriller that keeps you glued to your seat.  The vigorous score by Danish composer Martin Dirkov is haunting, reminiscent of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson’s work on “Sicario.”  In the end, you can’t help but feel that Saeed had an accomplice, in this case, the country’s misogynistic culture, without it, would these crimes have been committed?

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing at the Angelika Film Center & Café.   

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.