Every Person Shall Meet What They Wish to Avoid: Holy Spider (2022) - Reviewed


In 2000, an Iranian construction worker named Saeed Hanai systematically murdered sixteen sex workers, all women, over the course of a year. He stalked them, and under the guise of requesting sexual services, got them alone where he would then strangle them to death with their own headscarves. These atrocities were dubbed "the spider killings" and even after he was caught Saeed showed no remorse. The day before his execution Saeed said ''They were as worthless as cockroaches to me. Toward the end, I could not sleep at night if I had not killed one of them that day, as though I had become addicted to killing them." His reign of terror was met with secret approval from conservative sects even if they outwardly convicted him for his crimes.

In mid-September 2022, a young Iranian woman named Mahsa Amini was detained by the so-called "morality police" for allegedly improperly wearing her headscarf and having tight pants. She was whisked away in a police van to a detention center where she was supposed to be given a reeducation class. Two hours later her brother was told that she had a heart attack and a brain seizure at the police station. She was taken to a hospital, slipped into a coma, and died two days later. Witnesses in the police van said that Mahsa was brutally tortured by the police and sustained grievous head injuries that led to her death. The subsequent attempt by the Iranian government to cover up this death has led to numerous protests springing up all over Iran that are still ongoing.

Although Holy Spider (2022) (a dramatized take on the spider killings) was completed before the Mahsa Amini incident, the intense cultural-based misogyny that is prevalent in Iran is still alive and well. The film's opening sequence follows a sex worker as she makes her rounds and in an interesting choice immediately reveals Saeed (Mehdi Bajestani) as the serial killer. This takes the concept of a police procedural mystery off the table right away, and it reinforces the idea that the police and other authority figures aren't trying very hard to bring the killer to justice. 

The point-of-view for the narrative is filtered through a journalist named Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) a determined woman who is trying to get to the truth by any means necessary. She is hindered every step of the way by men looking down on her, sexual harassment, and physical intimidation. Ebrahimi infuses the character with a white hot simmering rage that is barely contained as she tries to navigate through the sexism and do her job as a journalist.

Holy Spider is less about serial killers and more about the way society creates and cultivates them. Saeed doesn't think he is doing anything wrong and believes his actions are approved by God, and many of the people around him agree and quietly empathize with his ideology. There is an unsettling sexual aura arounds his murders, an unholy merging of forbidden lust and murderous fury, as he takes out his righteous anger on those that he has deemed sinners and less than human. There is a lot of time spent with Saeed at home with his family that he obviously loves, but it doesn't seem like an attempt to humanize him as much as it is to illustrate the compartmentalization that happens when you demonize an entire group of people.

This film is graphic and disturbing, but it doesn't feel exploitative. These victims had families, people who loved and cherished them, and even though this happened over twenty years ago the culture that fostered it hasn't changed much for the better. The protesting that is occurring as this review is being written could finally be the catalyst for progress but we also need these horrific stories to be told, to be help up to the light as the obscenities that they are so it can be stopped.

--Michelle Kisner