The Rosary Murders
Rosary murders poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byFred Walton
Screenplay byElmore Leonard
Fred Walton
Based onThe Rosary Murders
by William X. Kienzle
Produced byRobert G. Laurel
CinematographyDavid Golia
Edited bySam Vitale
Music byBobby Laurel
Don Sebesky
Distributed byNew Line Cinema
Release date
  • August 27, 1987 (1987-08-27)
Running time
105 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.7 million[1]

The Rosary Murders is a 1987 American mystery crime film directed by Fred Walton and starring Donald Sutherland, Charles Durning, Belinda Bauer, and Josef Sommer. Its plot follows a series of gruesome murders occurring within a Detroit Roman Catholic parish. It is based upon the 1979 novel of the same name by William X. Kienzle. Kienzle received screenplay credit, as did Elmore Leonard.


In a Roman Catholic parish in Detroit, a series of murders begins in rapid succession: first, Father James Lord is killed on Ash Wednesday by an unknown assailant who unplugs the respirator in his hospital room. Shortly after, Sister Ann Peschal informs her superior, Father Robert Koesler, that she intends to leave the convent, as she has fallen in love with a man and wishes to marry him. The next morning, she is found by Koesler stabbed to death in her bathtub. A third victim, Father Dailey, is shot to death inside a confessional booth in the chapel. With each of the killings, the assailant leaves behind a black rosary in the victim's hand.

Pat Lennon, a journalist for the local newspaper, is appointed to cover the murders, and strikes a friendship with Koesler, who himself has experience working with the city's Catholic press. Later, Koesler angers his superior, Father Nabors, after performing a baptism on an infant borne out of wedlock. Koesler is unnerved when an individual who seems to be the killer visits his confessional and blames the church for his teenage daughter's death three years prior. Koesler is shaken by the encounter, and conflicted about reporting it to authorities, as a priest is morally forbidden from breaking the seal of confession. Later, Father Killeen is struck by the killer with a car while running in an unpopulated industrial area of the city; the killer emerges from the car and shoots Killeen before placing a rosary in his hand.

Koesler begins investigating, searching for records of a sixteen-year-old girl's death. He eventually finds records of a Katherine Javison, whom he learns attended a Catholic school. Speaking with staff, he learns that Katherine fell into an inexplicable deep depression in the last year of her life before committing suicide. Koesler attempts to speak with Sister Margaret Mary, Katherine's school advisor, but is informed that she took a vow of silence after Katherine's death. Next, Koesler visits the Javison home but receives no response upon knocking on the door; he climbs through a window into Katherine's bedroom, which has remained unchanged since her death. Koesler notices a black rosary in the room, as well as a lamp that Katherine used to hang herself. Katherine's father catches Koesler in the house, but allows him to depart unharmed.

Meanwhile, Father Steele is beckoned to give communion to a shut-in, and is escorted by police, only to be murdered inside the house. Later, Koesler unwittingly gives confession to Pat, who confesses her romantic feelings for him. When he attempts to phone her, he learns she has left Detroit. Koesler manages to arrange a meeting with Sister Mary Margaret at the cloister. She initially communicates with a notepad, before relenting and speaking aloud: She informs Koesler that Katherine confided in her that she and her father had an incestuous relationship. Mary Margaret refused to believe the accusation, but felt profound guilt after Katherine killed herself. Moments after Koesler leaves, Sister Mary Margaret is shot to death in the kitchen by an apparent repairman. Koesler and two policemen hear the gunfire and rush to her aid, but the killer manages to shoot both officers to death and escape.

At the police station, Koesler studies an evidence board displaying the serial killer's victims, and realizes that each victim's name has a connection to one of the Ten Commandments. Koesler surmises that Nabors may be the next victim (based upon the commandment "Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor"), but Father Nabors manages to perform a Good Friday service without incident. After the service, Koesler witnesses Robert Javison arrive at the church to make a confession. Robert confesses to Nabors that he had forced his daughter into incest with him, before drawing a gun to kill Nabors; however, the murder attempt is botched when police, observing from outside, shoot Robert to death through a window. After, Koesler is given a letter found in Robert's pocket: It is Katherine's suicide note in which she states her goodbyes, and that she forgives her father.



The film was shot in Detroit, Michigan at Holy Redeemer parish, a century old Roman Catholic church on Detroit's Southwest side. Musician Jack White also makes an uncredited appearance as a young altar boy.


The Rosary Murders was distributed by New Line Cinema, and premiered in Detroit on August 27, 1987, opening in New York City and Los Angeles the following day, August 28.[2]

Critical reception

In the Los Angeles Times, film critic Kevin Thomas wrote:

The Rosary Murders is an instance of good writing matched by firm, understated direction and some splendid playing from a large cast. In contrast to Walton’s spine-tingling When a Stranger Calls, The Rosary Murders is low-key yet can jolt you out of your seat--even on a second viewing. Sutherland, his hair silvered and close-cropped, radiates intelligence in one of the most substantial, reflective roles of his career. No matter that Durning always seems perfect casting as a priest, for he’s so skillful that he makes each time seem the first.[3]

The Detroit Free Press named the film #32 of "the 50 most essential movies set in Michigan."[4]


  1. ^ "The Rosary Murders". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved June 10, 2022.
  2. ^ "The Rosary Murders". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Archived from the original on June 10, 2022.
  3. ^ Kevin Thomas (September 11, 1987). "MOVIE REVIEWS : MORAL ISSUES AND MURDER : 'The Rosary Murders' an Engrossing Mystery Within Complex World". Los Angeles Times.
  4. ^ Hinds, Julie. "These are the 50 most essential movies set in Michigan". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved 12 December 2019.