Memories of Murder: "Holy Spider" and Serial Killer Cinema

Ali Abbasi's film asks if justice is possible at a remove from reality.
Kelli Weston

Ali Abbasi's Holy Spider is now showing exclusively on MUBI in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, and many other countries.

Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi, 2022).

In Ali Abbasi's Holy Spider, the holy city of Mashhad—perched upon the venerated shrine of Imam Reza—bears a haunting: from 2000 to 2001, a spate of murders shattered any semblance of divinity there. As the film retraces these real-world horrors, complete with all the requisite cinematic embellishments, it does not take long to reveal Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani), the devout Muslim family man behind the "spider killings," so named for the way he would lure his victims to the home he shared with his unsuspecting wife and children. By the time steely-eyed journalist Arezoo Rahimi (Zar Amir Ebrahimi) arrives to investigate, a pattern has emerged: Saeed exclusively targets sex workers and addicts, coercing the desperate women onto the back of his motorcycle, before strangling them with their headscarves and abandoning their bodies in some distant, discoverable area. 

Beset by the onerous gender restrictions that dominate women's lives in Iran, Rahimi, too, faces (not for the first time) the shadowy, unbridled impulses of men. Early on, someone chides her for not wearing her hijab properly, lest she incite the wrath of the morality police, the unit of Iran's police tasked with enforcing Islamic law, principally public dress codes. Later, an officer forces himself into her hotel room and propositions her. But Rahimi, grimly acclimated to such intrusions from men, determinedly persists, at once defiant and unflappable amid the onslaught of intersecting hostilities that may crush women either slowly or quickly. She forms a tenuous partnership with another journalist, Sharifi (Arash Ashtiani), who has been in contact with Saeed, and even dresses as a sex worker to draw Saeed out, a near-fatal ploy that nevertheless culminates in his capture.

Holy Spider conforms, then, to a long-familiar template, narratively and culturally, which is not merely to say Iranian culture. We have the serial killer (and, inevitably, true crime) genre's essential symmetry: an everyday hero to rival—and in some cases, remedy—all the terror that steers the film. Here, that is the (sometimes foolishly) daring journalist—also deployed in the recent Boston Strangler film—an archetype as likely as any to supplant the formerly enshrined detective, an increasingly unsympathetic figure since this latest, more scrutinous wave of true crime has exposed law enforcement as reliably incompetent above all else. If true crime bears any useful truths, it is not—at least in reality—that serial killers are somehow uniquely or even exceptionally clever, but that so many of them have strategically targeted the most vulnerable among us: women, sex workers, the indigent, queer people, drug users, people of color; in other words, the very classes that cops are either indifferent to or prey upon themselves, and moreover, possess the legal means to dispose of. In this light, more and more films of late endeavor to address the police’s ineffectiveness or outright corruption. See, most recently, The Little Things (2021), in which Denzel Washington's jaded sheriff is not only haunted by his failure to apprehend a serial murderer (who may still be at large), but also by the grim consequences of his own careless violence—or, put more aptly, the instinctive, institutional, and largely permitted violence of law enforcement in the apparent pursuit of justice.    

Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi, 2022).

Holy Spider, too, illuminates the general apathy and hypocrisy of the local authorities, which balloons into a faltering censure of the misogyny it seeks to condemn. For as the film unspools its righteous derision for the noxious culture of patriarchy, the architect of these conditions—that is, an environment, not at all confined to Iran, where the murder of women is not just inevitable, but tradition—then Abbasi also casually replicates these impulses when he so frequently and interminably restages these gruesome assaults. In scene after scene, as Saeed strangles his victims, the camera assumes his vantage point and devours their deaths with the spellbound, macabre fascination that has ensured the genre enduringly flourish. 

Abbasi’s film does, at least, contend that such a society could hardly expect to offer any meaningful form of justice. By the film’s end, one man is executed, but the vision to which he had been so feverishly bound boasts enumerable disciples. The idea of women as property abounds; entire governments are organized around its very preservation. Indeed, men routinely kill to honor this conviction above all others. Statistically, a woman is far more likely to be murdered at the hands of an intimate partner than a ravenous, predatory stranger who absconds with her into the shadows. And when the latter does happen—when, moreover, a man is punished for his particularly rapacious, or else hyperbolic, expression of a woefully quotidian plague—the apparatus (women as commodities) endures long after he has been duly excised from society. 

Although hardly a revelation, most serial killer narratives, fictional or otherwise, come down to this conclusion. Historically, cinema has preferred to frame this story somewhat differently: in a genre generally (and rather deceptively) saturated by dead white women, Abbasi has gutted some of the fantasy. In mainstream, traditional depictions anyway, the serial killer may be more or less capable of masking, but is fundamentally an outsider, who in some way betrays their central Otherness. He (and almost always a he, although women have proven themselves quite capable killers) can be handsome or smart, even charming—Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960), Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)—but usually, will be transparently bizarre, undeniably creepy, or harbor some gateway foible that either "predicts" or requires murder, like cross-dressing, voyeurism, or cannibalism. Some of these attributes originate with real-life offenders, but they also attest to certain preconceptions about our own capacity to spot harmful deviants among us. Time and again, this has been proven demonstrably false (in fact, more often, the most perceptive are ignored until it is too late). But in storytelling, one can more easily discern the grasping, anxious hope beneath that arrogance: that such horror could not be mundane, could not belong to this world, but must surely be evil and, therefore, far from the realm of humanity. 

Monster (Patty Jenkins, 2003).

Consider, for example, Perfume: Story of a Murderer (2006), director Tom Tykwer's admittedly clunky adaptation of the novel of the same name by Patrick Süskind: the prolific killer Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) has no scent himself, but from infancy, has been blessed with extraordinary olfactory senses, with which he sniffs out (of course) beautiful young women. After he kills them, he appropriates their smell through an elaborate distilling process, in an effort to alchemize a perfume for himself. Grenouille is convinced that his lack of scent is responsible for his lifelong alienation. "The soul of beings is their scent," he claims. Therefore, without a scent, he is without a soul. Serial killers may be the last monsters we're allowed to believe in: invading phantoms, smuggling their way into a world where the human potential to harm is not innate, or where the vulnerable do not every day fall prey to a host of violences—psychic, economic, and physical—to prevailing indifference. 

Apropos, Patty Jenkins's Monster (2003), a biographical account of Aileen Wuornos, provides a revealing mirror image to Abbasi's film. Wuornos, who killed seven of her clients while engaging in sex work, was one of the few women serial killers able to command the public's attention the way men did. She had experienced relentless sexual assault and exploitation throughout her life, and claimed that she had acted in self-defense each time when these men tried to rape her. Apart from the inverse narrative, like Holy Spider, the film proposes that society creates its "monsters." Monster garnered most acclaim for its unflinching realism and "grittiness," exemplified by Charlize Theron's famously rugged transformation; curiously enough, for one of the rare female serial killer dramas, when the genre notoriously thrives on glamor. But these apparent distinctions map an otherwise conventional cultural portrait, one that does not undermine but preserves our values. Wuornos operated within the bounds of an established framework; her murders were distinctly "unfeminine." She did not kill, as women serial killers tend to, someone with demands on her care: consider the chilling statistic that almost half of women serial killers are nurses or healthcare professionals, or that the murderous women who more readily captivate the public kill their children or husbands. Instead, she moved like the men whose names we knew by the trail of dead left in their wake. That is, like so many male serial killers, Wuornos—a sex worker and queer woman—killed strangers, truck drivers at that. She flipped the lore to the letter: scouring the roads, her victims' deaths intertwined with sex, in all its foretold danger. Thus, she could not, as a woman, expect the same glory so handily secured by men for behaving like them. So, too, the absence of the genre's characteristic allure was not merely authentic, but naturally legible to audiences, already primed to perceive sex workers and queer women outside of femininity, unworthy of its (fragile) enshrinement. 

The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991).

Elsewhere, cinema's sexy or otherwise seductive serial killers are legion. You have the often disturbed, but stylish culprits of giallo cinema, to say nothing of the visually iconic, era-defining aesthetics of Badlands (1973) and Natural Born Killers (1994). Then, there is, perhaps most notably, American Psycho (2000) and the Hannibal Lecter series, which has sired Manhunter (1986), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Hannibal (2001), Red Dragon (2002), and Hannibal Rising (2007) in addition to several spinoff television series. Lecter, in particular, is not only charming, but exceptionally intelligent, eternally five steps ahead of enraptured FBI agents (and veritable protégés) Clarice Starling and Will Graham. Moreover, Lecter has been portrayed by some of the most compelling and charismatic actors to ever grace the screen: Brian Cox, Anthony Hopkins, Gaspard Ulliel, and Mads Mikkelsen among them. Of course, there are just as many examples of grotesque, conspicuously sinister killers whose appearance or comport somehow reflects their inner sadism and inhumanity, from Angst (1983) to Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and the robust American horror franchises spawned by the prolific killers of the 1970s—Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, et cetera. 

Helplessly or not, Holy Spider cannot quite conceal its fascination with Saeed. Abbasi, who co-wrote the script with Afshin Kamran Bahrami, emphasizes Saeed's banal domestic life. He is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, a doting father—at least, until his dominance is threatened—and in every way, a deeply unexceptional man who visibly feels it. But even still, the film cannot resist certain slippages that betray an instinctive attraction to the man: sleek overhead shots of Saeed roving across the city at night accompanied by Martin Dirkov's pulsing electric score carry the ubiquitous and perhaps unavoidable influence of David Fincher's Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007), while Nadim Carlsen's cinematography seems to borrow from Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (2003) as well.

There is an obvious reason the genre continues to flourish: most serial killer narratives are fundamentally mysteries; they require detective work from the characters in the film and, by extension, the audience. We may know more or less than the investigators, or we discover the facts alongside them. Psychology, too, has always been core to this process, as the killer reveals more and more of himself and, in clues or his victims or his manner of violence, what might produce a murderer: commonly, mother wounds, or father wounds, but more often mother wounds. Inevitably, these films—even those that conclude cynically or ambiguously—offer a sense of justice, coherence (where real life life may offer little), and remoteness from the shape that horror may take in the world. And we cannot underestimate the grasp that fear and, furthermore, thrill has upon its viewers, safely tucked away from danger. These films are seldom curious about the often nameless dead before they meet their grisly end, because then that sense of safety might collapse under the weight of their profound relatability and inescapable doom. Serial killer narratives work the way that horror cinema does; they are, in fact, the zenith of the genre, all the more effective for their roots in reality. 

But what do we owe the dead? Perhaps the names are too numerous to recall—but how else, then, to honor Afsaneh, Layla, Fariba, Massoumeh, Sarah, Azam, Maryam, Sakineh, Khadijeh, Shahid, Marzieh, Touba, Azra, Maryam Beygi, Shiva, Zahra, Leila, Mahboube, and Zahra Dadkhosravi? It has been suggested that we might somehow "learn" from these stories; the film's conclusion proposes, fittingly, that in fact we haven't or won't. And in any case, such an idea only further reinforces that women and the vulnerable must be tasked with their own safety. Thus, the question becomes: why do we need so much reminding? 

Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi, 2022).

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