The Rosary Murders (1987)

Is this a giallo? A neo-noir? A detective story? Let’s not play with labels. Let’s just see it for what it is — a whodunit where priests and nuns are the victims of a serial killer who leaves a black rosary on their dead bodies.

Directed by Fred Walton (When a Stranger Calls) and adapted by Elmore Leonard, this is a dark, rough take on William X. Kienzie’s novel (Kienzie left the Catholc priesthood in 1974 after 20 years due to the Church’s refusal to remarry divorced people). This may have been the only movie concerning the detective skills of Father Robert Koesler (Donald Sutherland), but the character appeared in twenty three more novels from Kienzie.

The character is a progressive priest — even falling for a reporter, Pat Lennon (Belinda Bauer, RoboCop 2, Flashdance). He serves with Father Ted Nabors (Charles Durning, Tootsie), who is the exact opposite — a racist throwback to pre-Vatican 2 who follows the Church to the letter of the law.

The central dilemma of the film? The killer confesses to Koesler, who can’t do anything about it, thanks to the Church’s Seal of Confession. But what if other lives — maybe even his own — are in danger?

The film was shot on location at Detroit’s Holy Redeemer Parish, and if you look hard enough, you’ll see an uncredited Jack White — years before The White Stripes — as an altar boy. That feels like it should be an urban legend, but it is true.

The film has what some describe as a leaden pace. There are some great moments in it, such as when Koesler hears the killer in a cemetery and the ending, where the real killer is revealed. I’m always debating with myself whether or not to spoil the ending. It’s a thirty year old movie, but I feel weird doing so here. Must be the Catholic in me.

If this was made today, it wouldn’t be seen as controversial as it was in 1987. Today, it feels like a lost movie, were it not for Becca, who watched it on cable as a kid. Keep in mind, my wife was born in 1984, so the chances that she watched this gritty tale at the age of 7 or 8 hover around 100%.


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